Skip to main content

Full text of "The Pirenne Thesis Analysis Criticism And Revision"

See other formats




).4 Hj8p 


The Pirenne thesis 


* H38 P 62-19101 
Havighurst $1.50 
The Pirenne thesis 




Kansas city public library 

kansas city, missouri 

Books will be issued only 

on presentation of library card. 
Please report lost cards and 

change of residence promptly. 
Card holders are responsible for 

all books, records, films, pictures 
or -other library materials 
checked out on their cards. 


D DDD1 0323^70 3 



Analysis, Criticism., 
and Revision 


Alfred F. Havighurst, AMHERST COLLEGE 


Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 58-12572 


No part of the material covered lay this copyright may "he reproduced 
in any form -without -written permission of the publisher. (6 B 2) 


Table of Contents 


The First Europe i 


The Terms "Decay" and "Decline and Fall" 9 


from Medieval Cities 1 1 

from Mohammed and Charlemagne 28 


Origins of Medieval Civilization and the Problem of Continuity 43 

H . ST. L. B. MOSS 

Economic Consequences of the Barbarian Invasions 48 


M. Pirenne and the Unity of the Mediterranean World 54 


Mohammed and Charlemagne: A Revision 58 

East and West in the Early Middle Ages 74 


<^ 4 O M ~-f\ T ""** 

s^JLJ J. U X 

viii Table of Contents 


Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages 79 


Pirenne and Muhammad 84 


The Fate of Henri Pirenne's Theses on the Consequence of the 

Islamic Expansion 1 02 

Suggestions for Additional Reading 1 07 


DURING the past generation a sub- 
stantial literature has accumu- 
lated round one of the central problems of 
European history the transition from the 
ancient world to medieval civilization." 
These words, the introductory sentence of 
one of the selections in this problem, were 
written twenty years ago, but the re-exam- 
ination of the early Middle Ages, which 
they suggest, has continued. 

The older view gave isolated and per- 
functory treatment to Byzantium and to 
Islam and then turned wholeheartedly to 
the West: the Merovingians and Clovis, 
Charlemagne and the Carolingians, then 
the stem duchies in Germany and the 
Capetians in France, and the rest. The 
Cambridge Medieval History (8 v., 1911- 
1936), which brought together the scholar- 
ship of distinguished medievalists in many f 
lands, did recognize the importance of* 
Eastern Europe but still treated the Byzan- 
tine and Arab worlds quite apart from the 
West, and the emphasis throughout re- 
mained political and religious. Moreover, 
its character was encyclopedic with no 
interpretation integrating the enterprise as 

/ a whole. The abridged version (1952) was 
out of date at publication and it was then 
observed that the appearance of this 
Shorter Cambridge Medieval History prob- 
ably marked the end of medieval history 
written as past politics organized around 
dynastic periods. For, under quite different 
controlling assumptions, the story of the 
early Middle Ages had long since been in 

^ihe process of revision and by many of the 
very historians who had contributed to the 
conventional framework of the Cambridge 
history. As new questions were asked the 

materials of the past returned to life, yield- 
ing greater knowledge and leading to new 

To force re-examination of established 
ways of historical thinking requires power- 
ful and original minds, and for the study of 
the Middle Ages there have been many 
such in the twentieth century: Ch, Diehl 
(French), Norman H. Baynes (British), 
A. A. Vasiliev (Russian and American), 
among Byzantine scholars; Philip Hitti 
(Lebanese and American) and E. Levy- 
Provengal (French) on the Arabs and 
Islam; Alfons Dopsch, brilliant medievalist 
of Austria whose views made him a center 
of controversy; Marc Bloch, a hero of the 
French Resistance in World War II, who 
was a pioneer in French rural history; and 
so on. But if there was any one individual 
whg L i ^i' f |>%^^^^'upset the tranquility of 
the 'fflSttSiSs? wcod" and with whose name 
is associated special prestige, it was Henri 
Pirenne (1862-1935), celebrated national 
historian of Belgium and long associated 
with the university of Ghent. One encoun- 
ters him wherever one turns in the histori- 
cal writing of the past thirty years on the 
early Middle Ages. 

Put in the most general terms the ques- 
tion which Pirenne faced, and which as a 
consequenceVof his writing the whole of 
medieval scholarship has confronted since, 
is that of the relation of Roman Antiquity 
to the medieval vwrld of the First Europe. 
Some historians at least had been aware of 
what they were doing when they divided 
the story of western civilization into fee 
Ancient World, "the Middle Ages> and 
Modern Times. They realized of 
that such artificial periodi^trat 



essential continuity of human experience. 
And it was well known that the very idea 
of the Middle Ages was the historical crea- 
tion of another "period," that of the Renais- 
sance, when humanist writers, at pains to 
identify their era with Antiquity, attributed 
a uniqueness to the centuries between. Yet 
repetition tends to influence thought. It 
came to be taken for granted that the "An- 
cient World" and the "Middle Ages" were 
easily distinguished the one from the other, 
and that a distinct break came in the fifth 
century with the disappearance of the "Ro- 
man" emperors in the West, the appearance 
of Germanic "barbarian" kingdoms, and 
the triumph of Christianity. These devel- 
opments, with a slight accommodation, 
could be treated as simultaneous and dram- 
atized in a comparatively brief span of 
years, and were considered sufficient to set 
off one "period" of the past from another. 
Such became the textbook point of view 
and, with some qualifications, a controlling 
assumption of scholars as well. 

A quite radically different concept came 
out of the investigations of Pirenne. He 
concluded that the Roman world eco- 
nomically, culturally, and even, in essence, 
politically continued in all important par- 
ticulars through the centuries of the Ger- 
man invasions. It was rather the impact of 
Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries 
which, by destroying the unity of the Medi- 
terranean, ended the Roman world and led 
to a strikingly different civilization in the 
Carolingian era. "Without Islam the Prank- 
ish Empire would probably never have 
existed and Charlemagne, without Moham- 
met, would be inconceivable," he wrote in 
a famous sentence. 

His countrymen tell us that this idea 
appeared in his lectures at Ghent as early 
as 1910. It was first given published form 
in articles in the Revue beige de Philologie 
et d'Histoire, in 1922. Pirenne popularized 
his concept the same year in a series of 
lectures delivered in American universities 
and published as Medieval Cities, in 1925. 
At the Sixth International Congress of His- 
torical Sciences at Oslo in 1928, Pirenne 

read a paper on "L'expansion d'Islam et le 
commencement du moyen ge." A pro- 
longed and animated discussion ensued 
French, German, Polish, Italian, Dutch, and 
Hungarian scholars participating. Pirenne's 
views were amplified and documented in 
Mahomet et Charlemagne, finished in man- 
uscript form only a few months before his 
death in 1935 and, unfortunately, never 
subject to a final revision by him. This work, 
published in 1937 and translated into Eng- 
lish in 1939, brings'together all of Pirenne's 
research on this theme^But Medieval Cities 
had long since given wkl x e circulation to 
the "Pirenne Thesis/' "No volume dLsimi- 
lar size," wrote Professor Gray C. Boyce in 
1941, "has so affected medieval historical 
scholarship in marry generations." 1 X 

For economic historians of western Eu- 
rope, Pirenne's views have had perhaps 
special significance. But the impact has 
been almost as great on Byzantine studies 
(for Pirenne lengthened the essential unity 
of the Roman Mediterranean world), upon 
historians of Germany (for Pirenne rather 
minimized the Germanic contribution to 
European -development), upon historians 
of Islam whose story now assumed greater 
significance, and upon philosophers of his- 
tory, such as Toynbee, especially concerned 
with theories of change. 

The issues raised by Pirenne may be 
summarized as follows: 

1. What developments distinguish Antiq- 
uity from the Middle Ages? When do 
we properly cease to speak of the Roman 
world and begin to think in terms of the 
First Europe? 

2. What was the impact of Islam and the 
Arabs upon the West, and what that of 
the Germans? 

3. What is the relation between the Mero- 
vingian era (roughly 5th to 8th centu- 
ries) and the Carolingian era (the 8th 
and 9th centuries)? Do they present 
essential continuity or are they in sharp 

i Byzantion, XV, 460, n. 25. 


4. What can Jiistorians say about trade and 
industry-m the West, 400-1000? 

It is to Pirenne's conclusions on these 
matters, to the controversy which his views 
precipitated and to the new vitality of early 
medieval studies to which they so power- 
fully contributed that the attention of the 
student is directed in this problem. 

Our selections begin with brief introduc- 
tory statements, in fresh and vigorous form, 
calculated to free the reader from any nec- 
essary adherence to conventional attitudes 
toward the period under consideration. 
One is from "The Formation of the First 
Europe," the opening chapter of a stimu- 
lating treatment by C. Delisle Burns in his 
The First Europe (1947). The other is an 
evaluation of the words "decay" and "de- 
cline" when used with reference to the 
Roman Empire, from an article by M. 
Rostovtzeff, one of the most important of 
Roman historians of the twentieth century. 

Pirenne's own exposition is best studied, 
initially, in the popular and attractive 
Medieval Cities. This is the book which for 
well over a generation has made Pirenne's 
name familiar to undergraduate students 
of medieval history. Then from the more 
technical and more complete Mohammed 
and Charlemagne, we have his conclusions, 
in summary form, on the significance of 
the German invasions of Rome, a brief 
statement of the nature of the Islamic inva- 
sion of the Mediterranean and the West, 
and then a more elaborate examination of 
"Poetical Organization" and "Intellectual 
Civilization" in the Merovingian and 
Carolingian periods. 

The remaining selections consisting of 
discussion and criticism of the "Pirenne 
Thesis" are chosen from a large body of 
commentary available. Some noted names 
are included, and from various national 
backgrounds. A French historian, J. Les- 
tocquoy of Arras, examines the economy of 
the tenth century to determine if it will 
support Pirenne. From Professor Norman 
H. Baynes, an eminent British scholar in 

Byzantine studies, and from one of his asso- 
ciates, H. St. L. B. Moss, we have forth- 
right criticism. An American scholar now 
at Yale, Professor Robert S. Lopez, who has 
undertaken research in one of the most 
difficult of fields medieval economic his- 
tory makes a thorough analysis of the evi- 
dence. One of these extracts is from a paper 
read at the Tenth International Congress 
of Historical Sciences convening in Rome 
in 1955. 

The writings of Pirenne have done much 
to stimulate research in directions quite 
different from those of his own investiga- 
tions. Early medieval currencies, for exam- 
ple, is now a very active field of investiga- 
tion. And consideration of the shift of 
civilization from the Mediterranean to 
northern Europe led Lynn White, Jr. to 
examine technological development. His 
article, "Technology and Invention in the 
Middle Ages," illustrates the extent to 
which Pirenne helped rescue historical 
scholarship from rather narrow and paro- 
chial concerns. From Daniel C. Dennett, Jr. 
we have an analysis of "Pirenne and Mu- 
hammad," by a specialist in Islamic history. 
And finally from a Danish scholar, Anne 
Riising, we have in her article, "The Fate 
of Henri Pirenne's Theses," an up-to-date 
consideration of the whole problem in the 
light of historical commentary of the past 
twenty-five years. 

All together, these extracts present in 
sufficient detail for fairly close study the 
essentials of the "Pirenne Thesis." They 
also provide evidence and ideas against 
which to test its validity. Where does the 
matter now stand? ^Rather clearly Pirenne 
has left a permanent imprint upon medi- 
eval studies. Nearly every historian thinks 
differently because of him. And his central 
contribution, it would be generally agreed, 
has been this: to emancipate medieval 
historians in western Europe and in the 
United States from historical interests too 
exclusively political, legal, and religions in 
nature; to gain recognition of the impor- 
tance of Islam and of the role of Byzantium 



in the story of western civilization; and to 
make historians more aware of the limits 
of understanding and the errors in inter- 
pretation which follow from easy periodiza- 
tion of European history/" Nothing is better 
proof of Pirenne's/ brilliant eloquence," 
writes Anne Riising, "than the fact that he 
has been able to impose his own formula- 
tion of the problems upon even his oppo- 
nents." 2 

Yet, in particulars, research has generally 
refuted Pirenne. This in itself would not 
disturb him for he had no notion that he 
had entire historical truth. In 1932, as he 
finished the seventh and final volume of 
his great Histoire de Belgique, he insisted 
upon the value of works of historical synthe- 
sis which would suggest fresh hypotheses, 
establish new connections and pose different 
problems. At the same time he frankly ad- 
mitted that any synthesis was necessarily 
provisional "The materials [of history] can 

2 "The Fate of Henri Pirenne's Theses," Classica 
et Mediaevalia, XIII (1952), p. BO. 

never all be collected, for they can never be 
known. Problems cannot all be solved, for, 
as they are solved, new aspects are perpetu- 
ally revealed. The historian opens the way; 
he does not close it." 3 

[NOTE :The statements in the Conflict of Opinion 
on page xv are from the following sources: Charles 
Oman, The Dark Ages, 476-918 (1898), pp. 3, 5; 
Michael Postan, ^Cambridge Economic History 
of Europe, vol. H (1952), p. 157;_R. S. Lopez, 
Relazioni del X Congresso Internazionale di 
Scienze Storiche, vol. Ill, p. 129; Henri Pirenne, 
Mohammed and Charlemagne, p. 284, and Medi- 
eval Cities, p. 27; J. Lestocquoy, "The Tenth 
Century," Economic History Review, vol. XVII 
(1947), p. 1; Alfons Dopsch, quoted by H. St. L. 
B. Moss, Economic History Review, vol. VII 
(1936-1937), p. 214; R. S. Lopez, Relazioni del 
X Congresso Internazionale di Scienze Storiche, 
vol. Ill, p. 130; Norman H. Baynes, Byzantine 
Studies and other Essays (1955), pp. 315, 316; 
Lynn White, Jr., "Technology and Invention in 
the Middle Ages," Speculum, vol. XV (1940), 
pp. 152-153; Daniel C. Dennett, Jr., "Pirenne 
and Muhammad," Speculum, vol. XXIII (April 
1948), pp. 168, 189-190.] 

3 As paraphrased hy F. M. Powicke, Modern His- 
torians and the Study of History (London, 1955), 
p. 104. 



A.D. 284-305 DIOCLETIAN, Roman Emperor 

306-337 CONSTANTINE I (THE GREAT), Roman Emperor 

330 Byzantium rebuilt as Constantinople 

379-395 THEODOSIUS I (THE GREAT), Roman Emperor 

395 Permanent division of Empire, East and West 

474-491 ZENO, East Roman Emperor 

527-565 JUSTINIAN, East Roman Emperor 

610-641 HERACLIUS I, East Roman Emperor 

71 7 741 LEO III (THE ISAURIAN), East Roman Emperor 


ca. 370 Pressure of Huns on Goths in Eastern Europe 

378 Battle of Adrianople; Visigoths defeat Romans 

395 Huns (ATTILA) on the Danube 

451 Final Defeat of Huns at Chalons (Champagne') 

395-408 Visigothic Revolt (ALARIC) against Eastern Empire 

4 1 Visigothic "Sack of Rome' 

ca. 400-600 Visigothic Kingdom in Southern Gaul and Spain 

(Continues in Spain until 7 1 1 ) 

ca. 420 Beginnings of Anglo-Saxon Invasions of Britain 

ca. 400-430 Franks, Burgundians, Vandals cross the Rhine into Gaul 
ca. 400600 Burgundian Kingdom in Rhone Valley 

(Absorbed by Franks, end of 6th century) 
ca. 429-534 Vandal Kingdom in North Africa 
(Reconquered lay JUSTINIAN) 

- 455 Vandals (GAISERIC) plunder Rome 

ca. 400-751 Merovingian Kingdom of the Franks in Gaul 
48 1-5 1 1 CLOVIS, Merovingian King of the Franks 
538594 GREGORY, Bishop of Tours (History of the Franks) 
639-751 Rois Faineants, Merovingian Kingdom of Franks in Gaul 


476 Deposition of ROMULUS AUGUSTUS, last Roman-bom Emperor of 


476493 ODOACER, King of the Romans 

489 THEODORIC leads Ostrogoths from Eastern Empire into Italy 

493526 THEODORIC, Ostrogothic King of Italy (Ravenna') 

ca. 480575 CASSIODORUS, Roman statesman and scholar 

480-525 BOETHIUS, Roman statesman and philosopher 

5 3 5-5 5 3 JUSTINIAN'S Reconqiiest (under BELISARIUS) of Africa f Italy, Sicily, 

and portions of Spain 

539751 Byzantine Exarchy in Ravenna 
552 First appearance of Lombards (federated with Eastern Empire against 

the Ostrogplhz) 
568 Lombards conquer Po V alley 


xiv Chronological Table 


313 Edict of Milan, Toleration of Christianity 

325 Council of Nicaea 


379 Death of ST. BASIL 

440-461 LEO I (THE GREAT), Bishop of Rome ("Pope") 

480-534 ST. BENEDICT 

ca. 590 ST. COLUMBAN (IRISH) comes to Gaul 


597 ST. AUGUSTINE (BENEDICTINE) lands in Britain 


ca. 675-754 ST. BONIFACE 


ca. 570-632 MOHAMMED 

632 Beginning of Caliphate (Asu BAKR) 

634-644 OMAR CALIPH and Conquest of Syria, Persia, and Egypt 

661750 OMAYYAD Caliphate at Damascus 

661-680 MUAWTYA, first Omayyad Caliph 

68 5-705 ABDU-L-MALIK, Caliph 

711 Islam reaches Spain 

732 Battle of Tours 

750-1258 ABBASID Caliphate at Bagdad 

786-809 HARUN-AL-RASCHID, Caliph at Bagdad 

Carolingian Prankish Kingdom 

687-714 PEPIN OF HERISTAL, Mayor of the Palace 

714-741 CHARLES MARTEL, Mayor of the Palace 

741-768 PEPIN THE SHORT, Mayor of the Palace and (751) King of the 


751 Lombards take Ravenna 

768-8 1 4 CHARLEMAGNE, King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, Emperor 

of the Romans 

782 ALCUIN OF YORK comes to Palace School at Aachen 

800 Coronation of CHARLEMAGNE as Emperor 

814-840 Louis THE Pious, Emperor 

843 Peace of Verdun, beginning of breakup of Carolingian Empire 

Conflict of Opinion 

1. How was the world of antiquity which we call Roman transformed into 
the medieval society which we call European? From the days of Edward 
Gibbon to the early twentieth century, this question gave historians little 

If we must select any year as the dividing line between ancient history and 
the Middle Ages, it is impossible to choose a better date than 476 [the year 
in which the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed by the 
German Odoacer]. ... It is ... in every way correct, as well as convenient 
to style him [Odoacer] as the first German king of Italy and to treat his reign 
as the commencement of a new era. 


With this conclusion, economic development seemed to provide no 

Without careful examination, historians could take it more or less for granted 
that the irruption of the barbarians meant a complete break with the economic 
civilization of the Roman Empire. 


2. However, twentieth century historians have submitted the role of the 
Germans and the whole story of the transition to medieval society to 

Virtually nobody believes any more that the barbarian invasions of the fifth 
century marked a sharp turn in economic history, although most historians 
will admit that the meeting of German immaturity with Roman decrepitude 
accelerated the process of disintegration whose first symptoms can be traced 
as far back as the age of the Antonines. 


3. A brilliant contribution was made by Henri Pirenne, who put forth the 
view that the Moslems, not the Germans, destroyed the Roman world. 

The Germanic invasions destroyed neither the Mediterranean unity of the 
ancient world, nor what may be regarded as the truly essential features of 
Roman culture. . . . The cause of the break with the tradition of antiquity 
was the rapid and unexpected advance of Islam. 

Without Islam, the Prankish Empire would probably never have existed and 
Charlemagne, without Mahomet, would be inconceivable. 

4. In more general terms Pirenne opened up a much larger question. Can- 
not much of the complexity of the transition from the Roman World to 
the Medieval World be understood through an analysis of economic 
change? Hence, it was essential to establish the relationship between the 
well-known Carolingian period (broadly the eighth and ninth centuries) 
and that which came before and that which followed. This is in itself a 
matter of some controversy. 


xvi Conflict of Opinion 

The view which is at present the most widely accepted is that of Henri Pirenne. 
According to him, medieval civilization began to take shape at the end of the 
tenth century after the Viking and the Hungarian invasions had ceased. The 
end of the ancient world had come much earlier [with] the triumph of Islam 
. . . and the Carolingian period was one of full decline. 


The Carolingian development is a link in the unbroken chain of living con- 
tinuity which leads, without any cultural break, from the late antiquity to 
the German middle ages. 


5. However, the ideas of both Pirenne and Dopsch have been sharply 

Henri Pirenne made the Arabs squarely and directly responsible for pulling 
an iron curtain which separated the Believers from the Infidels and left Europe 
an economic and cultural dead end. His superb pleading and his personal 
charm won many converts. Nevertheless, a large number of scholars . . . were 
not convinced. For the last twenty years nearly all that has been written on 
early medieval economic history has reflected the heat of the controversy on 
"les theses d'Henri Pirenne." 


It is misleading to state that for the Franks of the sixth century, the Mediter- 
ranean still remained "mare nostrum." . . . My own belief is that the unity of 
the Mediterranean world was broken by the pirate fleet of Vandal Carthage 
and that the shattered unity was never restored. 


Pirenne is only the most recent of many historians to speculate as to why the 
reign of Charlemagne witnessed the shift of the center of European civiliza- 
tion, the change of the focus of history, from the Mediterranean to the plains 
of Northern Europe. The findings of agricultural history, it seems, have never 
been applied to this central problem. . . . For obvious reasons of climate the 
agricultural revolution of the eighth century was confined to Northern Europe. 


6. And in recent years, our increased knowledge suggests once again a fresh 

We must affirm that ... [in no authoritative statements in Islam] is there any 
prohibition against trading with the Christians or unbelievers, . . . Islam 
was hostile to Christianity as a rival, not as a completely alien faith, and the 
Muslims were invariably more tolerant than the Christians. 

The man whether he be a Pirenne or a Dopsch who attempts to under- 
stand and to interpret either the Merovingian or Carolingian period in terms 
purely of an economic interpretation of history will be certain to fail, for the 
simple reason that economic factors play a subsidiary role and present merely 
aspects in the great causative process, 




Cecil Delisle Burns (18791942) had a varied and Interesting career 
as an official in the British Ministry of Reconstruction created during 
World War I, as a party official in the Joint Research Department of 
the British Labor Party and Trades Union Congress, as an officer in the 
Labor Office of the League of Nations, and as a lecturer in Ethics and 
Social Philosophy In the University of London. His interests, as a writer, 
were in a sense equally diverse, for he ranged over all periods of history. 
But his books had a common theme that of the relation of force and 
moral authority during periods of social transition. It is this theme which 
dominates The First Europe, the book from which a brief selection 

TE FIKST Europe came into existence 
during the four hundred years from 
the beginning of the fifth century to the 
end of the eighth century of the Christian 
era. It included, geographically, the coun- 
tries now known as France, England, Ire- 
land and southern Scotland, western Ger- 
many, central and northern Italy and 
northern Spain. Its peoples spoke Ger- 
manic languages in the North and East, 
and variations of Latin in the South and 
West AThey were socially united in a Chris- 
tendonTwhich excluded the older eastern 
forms of ChristianityTJbut they were di- 
vided by local lordships. This First Europe 
was, indeed, dependent in its earlier years 
upon the older cultures of the Mediter- 
ranean, which had produced finally the 
Roman Empire; but it was a new type of 
civilization. Thus, the word Europe be- 
came, after the collapse of the Roman Em- 
pire in the West, more than a geographical 
expression; and it was used in the new 
sense for the first time in the ninth cen- 
tury, for example, by Nithard the ninth- 
century historian, when he wrote that 

Charles the Great at his death "had left all 
Europe in the greatest happiness." Europe 
is thus distinguished, not only from other 
lands, but from the tradition of the Greek- 
speaking Churches and Empire, and from 
Islam. From that time Europe was "the 
West" not merely a different place but a 
different spirit. 

The Roman Empire had never been 
European or Western, in the modern sense 
of these words. It had always united the 
countries surrounding the eastern Mediter- 
ranean, from which it drew its chief wealth, 
with the less developed countries of the 
West, including northern Gaul and Britain, 
And when, at the beginning of the fourth 
century, first Diocletian and then Constan- 
tine removed the central administration 
from Rome eastwards, it had become ob- 
vious to Roman generals and lawyers, as 
well as to the adherents of Christianity, 
that the real centre of the Empire lay at 
the junction of Asia and Europe. The 
Roman Empire was based upon the control 
of the trade routes in the basin of the Medi- 
terranean. It inherited the conquests of the 

From C. Delisle Burns, The First Euro} 
AD. 400-800 (London; 1947), pp. 23-3 

ei A Study of the Establishment of Medieval 
6. By pennissioii of George Alleia & UnwinL&fc 


Greek successors of Alexander in Egypt, 
Syria and Asia Minor. And although it 
had also succeeded to the conquests of the ' 
Roman Republic in the West, these were 
of less importance, three centuries after 
Augustus, than the rich and populous cities 
of what is now called the "Near East." 

The civilization of the First Europe was 
quite distinct from the Roman. It did not 
depend upon the Mediterranean. It was 
the creation of the Latin Churches, and not 
of any one military or civil power. Its intel- 
lectual centres were in northern France, 
the Rhine country, England and northern , 
Italy. Its architecture and other plastic arts \ 
were original experiments to meet new 
needs. Its music came out of popular songs. 
Its organizations of a learned caste, the 
clergy, of monasteries and of the universi- 
ties which were later established, w r ere new 
social inventions. Thus, the First Europe 
of the so-called Middle Ages, was an origi- 
nal experiment in new ways of living and 
thinking. Medieval civilization was more 
primitive than the Roman in externals, be- 
cause it lacked, for example, baths and 
roads; and in culture it was more primitive, 
because it lacked that natural intercourse 
between educated men and women, which 
existed in the Roman villas and city man- 
sions. But in other aspects it was an ad- 
vance upon Mediterranean civilization; for 
example, in its moral and religious ideals, 
in its community of feeling between the 
rich and the poor and in its widespread 
sense of social responsibility. If character 
and conduct in different ages are to be 
compared, St. Francis was not more civil- 
ized than Seneca, but he had wider and 
more subtle sympathies; and Abelard, 
Aquinas and Occam were better thinkers 
than Cicero and Pliny, although their ob- 
servation and experience were more limited. 
The greater philosophers of ancient Athens 
cannot be supposed to add credit to the 
Roman Empire, the culture and social or- 
ganization of which retained few traces of 
their teaching in the fifth century of the 
Christian era. To avoid misunderstanding, 
therefore, it should be clearly stated that 

medieval civilization is regarded here as 
only a first stage in the development of a 
pattern of culture, whose later forms were 
the second Europe of the sixteenth to nine- 
teenth centuries, and the third Europe now 
being established. To compare the Roman 
system at its best under the Antonines, or 
in its later years under Constantine or 
Theodosius the Great, with the First Eu- 
rope in the days of Charles the Great, is 
like comparing a great river, losing itself in 
the sands at the end of its course, with a 
mountain torrent from which a still greater 
stream arises. Or again, to change the meta- 
phor, the early history of the First Europe 
treats of the roots of that great tree which 
has now expanded into modern science, 
modern music and arts, and modern skill 
in government. But the roots of that tree, 
if exposed to the light of history, may not 
appear so attractive as the latest faded flow- 
ers of Greek and Roman culture. 

Although medieval civilization, through- 
out its whole course until the Renaissance, 
and certainly in its first years, was more 
primitive than the Roman, its roots struck 
far deeper among all classes of the com- 
munity; and it contained forces much more 
powerful than the Roman Empire had ever 
included. The doctrine and practice of the 
Christian Churches, based upon the belief 
that each human being had an immortal 
soul to be saved, and that all were in some 
sense equal as Christians this was one of 
the most important influences in the forma- 
tion of what is now known as democracy. 
Democracy as an ideal means a social sys- 
tem of liberty, equality and fraternity for 
all men, and not a system in which a few 
share freedom among themselves in order 
the better to control the rest. And democ- 
racy as a system of government, by which 
the ideal may be approached, means at feast 
some control by the "plain people" over 
their rulers and agents and some right of 
public discussion concerning public policy. 
But even in this sense, the sources of some 
elements in the democratic tradition of to- 
day are to be found in the election of 
bishops in the earliest Christian Churches 

The First Europe 

and in the meeting of bishops as repre- 
sentatives in Synods, rather than in an- 
cient Athens or Rome. 

The word "democracy" in Greek did not 
refer to slaves and women as members of 
the political community, although, as in 
the case of cattle, their owners and masters 
might care for them. On the other hand, 
the Athenians developed and the Roman 
Republic preserved the power to criticize 
and remove public authorities and the free 
discussion of public policy by all citizens. 
But neither criticism nor discussion sur- 
vived in the Christian Churches; and the 
democracy of early Christianity had passed, 
before the fifth century, into a form of des- 
potism under the control of the bishops and 
clergy. The democratic tendency of Chris- 
tianity in medieval Europe survived only in 
the sacraments and ceremonies, which were 
equally shared by all, and in early Chris- 
tian documents which served at times to 
support protests against despotism, political 
or clerical. Nevertheless, democracy in the 
modern sense of that word, did in fact arise 
within the Christian tradition and not else- 
where. Medieval civilization was also the 
source of the great European literatures 
and of modern European music and plastic 
arts. Even modern experimental science 
can be traced to the practices of magic, both 
sacred and secular, in the Middle Ages. 
But in social institutions the early years of 
the First Europe were still more important 
^for the future. At that time the system of 
nation-States had its origin in the barbarian 
kingdoms which replaced the Roman prov- 
inces in the West. The Roman organiza- 
tion of Christian communities spread from 
Italy and Gaul into England, Ireland and 
Germany. The great monastic system of the 
West was established; and pilgrimage con- 
nected the common people of all Europe. 
These are the roots of the First Europe. . . . 

AND A.D. 800 

Of the most obvious institutions in A.D. 
400 the Roman Empire is the best known. 
It was one system of government which 

included all the lands from northern Brit- 
ain to the borders of Iraq, and from the 
Rhine and Danube to the Sahara. In A.D. 
800, on the other hand, the same institu- 
tion, still called the Roman Empire, in- 
cluded only part of the Balkan peninsula 
and of Turkey, within easy reach of its 
capital at Constantinople. But in western 
Europe separate kingdoms under Germanic 
chieftains were established in Gaul, then 
called western France, and Germany, then 
called eastern France, in Italy, in England 
and in northern Spain.^The most striking 
feature of the change is the localization of 
government. Many different and independ- 
ent centres of power and authority had 
taken the place of one; although all these 
countries were felt to be united against the 
outer world, as Latin Christendom. Africa 
north of the Sahara and southern Spain 
were ruled by Mohammedan Caliphs. In 
the East were unknown tribes; and in the 
West, the Ocean. 

In A.D. 400 the Roman Emperors, who 
were Christian and Catholic, were legis- 
lating on doctrine and Church discipline, 
with the advice of bishops, who were them- 
selves largely under the control of imperial 
officials. But by A.D. 800 there was an im- 
perial Church, outside the surviving Roman 
Empire in the East, subject to the bishops 
of Rome, legislating for itself, and some- 
times using the power of local kings for 
civil as well as ecclesiastical organization. 
A large part of western Europe was united 
again, but now by the organization of the 
Latin Churches, which had lost contact 
with the Christianity of the eastern Medi- 
terranean. Less obvious, but more impor- 
tant than the great changes in political and 
ecclesiastical institutions, was the change in 
the system of production and distribution. 
In A.D. 400 the Roman Empire depended 
upon the organization of great cities 
Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Car- 
thage, Aries and the rest, whose popula- 
tions obtained food and clothing from dis- 
tant sources of supply. There was a trade 
slaves, food-stuffs and raw materials 


throughout the Mediterranean basin, ex- 


tending also to the Rhine country, northern 
Gaul and Britain. A cultured, city-bred, 
rich class provided administrators for a 
single system of economic customs and 
political laws. By A.D. 800 all this had dis- 
appeared from western Europe. The great 
Roman cities were in ruins; and their di- 
minished populations continually suffered 
from plague, famine or the raids of armed 
gangs. Trade between the East and the 
West of the Mediterranean basin had al- 
most come to an end. The slave-trade 
hardly existed; and neither ships nor road 
traffic were able to carry raw materials and 
foodstuffs for long distances. Distribution, 
therefore, had become local. It was organ- 
ized by local landowners, controlling serfs 
tied to the soil, but possessed of customary 
rights. The ruling class, except for a few of 
the higher clergy, consisted of ignorant, 
illiterate, country-bred "sportsmen," whose 
chief enjoyment, when not killing or rob- 
bing their neighbours, was hunting game 
in the forests. In the four centuries that 
followed the fifth, a great process of de- 
urbanization was taking place. The popu- 
lation was more evenly spread over the 
whole area of north-western Europe. Thus, 
medieval Europe was embodied in the 
primitive castles and the abbeys and not, at 
any rate in its first phase, in the houses or 
churches of merchants and craftsmen in 
the towns. 

Again, in A.D. 400 the centres of intel- 
lectual activity, of the arts and of trade, 
were the sea-ports of the Mediterranean 
basin Constantinople, Alexandria, Car- 
thage, Aries and Rome. By the ninth cen- 
tury the centres of activity in the First 
Europe lay in the North- West Paris, 
Tours, Fulda, and, in later years, Antwerp 
and London. Thus the geographical setting 
for the new type of civilized life lay in 
countries on the border of the great ocean, 
which proved eventually to be, not the 
limit of the earth, but the pathway to a 
new world. Finally in A.D. 400 Christianity 
was a proselytizing religion, fighting long- 
established customs and beliefs of many 
^lifferent types; and Christianity itself, even 

among the more simple-minded western 
races, w T as divided into different sects 
Arians, Donatists, Priscillianists and others. 
It was organized in local congregations or 
Churches, each independent of the other, 
but connected by a common literature and 
ritual, and by the Councils of bishops. 
Later, in A.D. 800, in western Europe Chris- 
tianity had become Christendom. Every- 
one was assumed to be Christian and Cath- 
olic. The Latin Churches of the West had 
coalesced into one imperial Church con- 
trolled by a separate caste of clergy, monks 
and nuns, most of them celibates, under the 
government, at least in theory, of the 
bishops of Rome. 


The contrast between A.D. 400 and A.D. 
800 is startling. What is here attempted is 
to explain how and why the change oc- 
curred. In its earliest stages the change 
may be regarded as due to a conflict be- 
tween a particular type of civilization and 
a particular type of barbarism. It is assumed 
in what follows that the "pattern of cul- 
ture" called the Greek-Roman civilization, 
embodied in the late Roman Empire, was 
only one of many possible forms of civil- 
ized life. Not civilization in general, but 
only Roman civilization was in question in 
the fifth century, although most of the 
writers of that time thought of their own 
tradition as civilization itself. In the same 
way, some writers and speakers of to-day 
who lament the danger to "civilization," 
fail to perceive that an earlier pattern of 
culture may be replaced by a better. The 
Roman system was the last of the great 
predatory Empires based upon slavery; but 
it brought unity and extended culture 
throughout the countries in the basin of 
the Mediterranean. Its best products were 
regarded by eighteenth-century historians 
as standards for all civilized men; and they 
were therefore unable to understand or 
appreciate the new forms of civilization 
which took its place. But they were not 
wrong in supposing that any form of civil- 
ized life is better than any barbarism, al- 

The First Europe 

though it is always difficult to distinguish 


first signs of a new civilization from 

the barbarism by which it is surrounded. 

This book is concerned with the transi- 
tion from one type of civilization, the Ro- 
man, to another the European. Any form 
of civilization is a complex of social rela- 
tionships, more varied and more intricate 
than those of barbarism. Among civilized 


men and women opinions and tastes differ, 
and social customs are continually adjusted 
by individual experiment. Occupations are 
differentiated in what is called the division 
of labour, and the political and economic 
"interests" of the members of any com- 
munity, and of different communities, are 
different and interdependent. In barbar- 
ism, on the other hand, all the members of 
the community are as far as possible alike 
in opinions, tastes, occupations and inter- 
ests. Society is homogeneous. Established 
custom and belief control daily life and 
prevent variation. One man, or one caste 
of magicians or lords, provides the rules for 
thought and action. And therefore even in 
civilized communities the simplicity of bar- 
barism has an attraction for minds weak- 
ened by personal distress or confused by 
social unrest, as it had for the Cynics in 
ancient Greece and the hermits of the third 
and fourth centuries of the Christian era. 

Although civilization and barbarism are 
face to face, the chief purpose of our dis- 
cussion is to show, not how an old civiliza- 
tion disappeared, but how a new civiliza- 
tion arose. Social relations change when a 
child becomes a man, when acquaintances 
become husband and wife, or when lovers 
use telephones instead of writing. When 
such changes occur, it is misleading to 
think of them as a decay or decline of an 
earlier system. It would be absurd to treat 
a change in social custom, such as the 
wearing of trousers instead of tunics in the 
fifth century, as a decay or decline of any- 
thing whatever. Biological metaphors ap- 
plied to types of civilization or patterns of 
culture misrepresent the facts. Indeed, in 
times of social transition there is greater 
vitality among ordinary men and women 

than at other times, precisely because the 
displacement of ancient customs compels 
them to think and act for themselves. 
Again, the transition from a long-estab- 
lished social system to the crude beginning 
of a new Order, must not be rendered in 
terms of good and bad. French is not bad 
Latin. But from the fifth to the ninth cen- 
tury, when the transition from Latin to 
French was taking place, the finer qualities 
of the new language were not so easily 
perceived, especially by the educated, as 
the mummified elegance of the Latin of 
the vanished past. As in the history of lan- 
guage, so in that of the plastic arts, the 
splendid temples of ancient Rome were 
more magnificent than the Christian basili- 
cas of the fourth century and their mosaic 
decoration. But in the study of the transi- 
tion to a new type of civilization it is neces- 
sary to foresee in the colours of the mosaics 
the future development of the decoration 
of the Christian Churches in the glass of 
the cathedrals of Chartres and of York. 
Thus, the transition from the Roman sys- 
tem of civilization must not be regarded 
primarily as the spread of barbarism. 

On the other hand, the barbarism by 
which the Roman system was faced in the 
fifth century, was not barbarism in general, 
but a particular form of it. It was the bar- 
barism of the Gothic and Germanic tribes 
introduced at first into the heart of the 
Roman world as its defenders. Historians 
of the nineteenth century, however, were 
as mistaken in their estimate of Germanic 
barbarism as their predecessors had been in 
their view of Roman culture. By the later 
historians, the Germanic barbarians were 
taken to be pure-souled, loyal and valiant 
supplanters of an effete social and political 
system. This astonishing mistake was, no 
doubt, partly due to a misunderstanding 
of the prejudices of the Christian Fathers, 
partly to the Romantic Movement, but 
chiefly to the uncontrolled imagination of 
sedentary scholars. As it is clear from con- 
temporary records, the Germanic barbari- 
ans, with a few noble exceptions, were 
drunken, lecherous, cowardly and quite tin-- 


trustworthy, even among those for whom 
they professed friendship. They did not 
indeed suffer from such vices of luxury as 
may be due to fine clothes, baths and good 
cooking. Simplicity has its attractions, even 
when, as Sidonius Apollinaris says, it 
stinks. 1 But the Vandals in Africa in the 
fifth century showed that the so-called vir- 
tues of barbarians were largely due to their 
ignorance of the more subtle tastes of civil- 
ized men. And it is an absurdity to treat 
Theodoric the Ostrogoth or Clovis the 
Frank as examples of nobility or valour. 
The first, with his own hand, killed his 
guest; the second split open the skull of a 
subordinate, when his back was turned. 
These men were savages. But the particu- 
lar form of barbarism which can be con- 
trasted with the Roman type of civilization 
in the fifth century, was certainly Ger- 
manic. A great German historian has said 
that "the process of barbarization of the 
Roman Empire was a process of Germani- 
zation/' 2 The barbarism, therefore, with 
w r hich this book is concerned, is not bar- 
barism in general, but only one tvpe of it. 

O ' > * 

In very general terms, the characteristics 
of Roman civilization and of Germanic 
barbarism may be described as follows. 
Under the Roman system the relations be- 
tween men, women and children were 
complicated and various. A long-established 
system of slavery had been somewhat modi- 
fied, under Stoic and Christian influence, 
to the advantage of the slaves. But the 
sla\ r e population was large; and even sol- 
diers had slaves. Legal rights of ownership, 
marriage, inheritance and trade were clearly 
defined; and an official administration made 
them effectual. The mechanisms of pro- 
duction and transport were well developed. 
Public buildings and aqueducts still remain 
to prove the existence of applied sciences 
of which barbarians are ignorant. The 
minor arts of clothing and the preparation 

1 Felicemque libet vocare nasum, etc. (Carm. xxii. 
13). "Happy the nose which cannot smell a bar- 
barian." Tins was written about A.D. 455 in Gaul. 

2 Mommsen, Romische Geschichte (1885), Part 
v, bk. viii, en. 4. 

of food were carried on in a characteristic 
form, as it is still evident in the Roman 
dress of the fifth century, which has served 
as a model for ecclesiastical costume and 
vestments surviving into modern times. 
The fine arts in the fifth century were 
superficial and derivative. Writers lived 
upon the pages of other writers, long since 
dead; and artists in the plastic arts spent 
their energies upon ornament rather than 
structure and function. But the fine arts 
had a recognized place in society. 

Germanic barbarism, on the other hand, 
was the common characteristic of a number 
of disconnected small tribes, speaking dia- 
lects hardly yet developed into languages. 
Each of these tribes was as much, if not 
more, hostile to its neighbours than to the 
Roman Empire. The young men of these 
tribes, with some camp-followers, eagerly 
left the tribal settlements to seek booty or 
service in war under Roman commanders. 
They were simple folk, without any skill 
in agriculture, building or other useful arts, 
whose social relationships, as expressed in 
their legal customs, were troubled chiefly 
by personal violence, murder and stealing. 
That is to say, they were in that situation 
which sociologists describe as a transition 
from the pastoral to the agricultural stage 
of social development. In their entertain- 
ments and their religion, some customs and 
beliefs survived from a still earlier stage of 
^ocial development that of the hunters. 
Thus, even when the barbarians had en- 
tered into territories hitherto Roman, they 
preserved the pleasures of the chase and 
their belief in the magic of woods and 
sacred places. The members of a small bar- 
barian community were, no doubt, more 
closely united in the simplicity of their 
\minds, and in loyalty to their chieftains, 
than were the men and women of the more 
complex Roman city life. This may have 
been the basis of the idea of romantic his- 
torians that loyalty and honour were bar- 
barian virtues. But any barbarian com- 
munity faced two dangers. First, if it took 
service under one Roman general, it might 
be reduced to slavery by the victory of 

The First Europe 

another; and, secondly, if It remained out- 
side the Roman frontiers, it might suffer 
from the slave-raids which had been essen- 
tial for many centuries before the fifth in 
order to supply the Roman world with 
cheap labour. No doubt, this is the basis 
for the idea that Germanic barbarians stood 
for "freedom." Tacitus wrote in the second 
century a brilliant political pamphlet on 
the "noble savage," the Germania. This at- 
tack upon the political opponents of Taci- 
tus in Rome has been used, even in modern 
times, as evidence of the situation among 
the German tribes three hundred years after 
Tacitus wrote. But the Germanic barbari- 
ans were, like other barbarians, entangled 
in continually changing social situations, 
with their own defects and advantages. The 
same situations existed, in the main, among 
non-Germanic barbarians of the North, 
with whom the Roman populations came 
into contact the Huns, the Avars, and the 
Slavs; but no Tacitus has made political 
capital out of these savages. Neither Ger- 
man nor other barbarians in the second or 
in the fifth century can be used by a mod- 
ern historian as models of morality, with 
which to contrast the decadence of the 
Roman upper class. But the very simplicity 
of the barbarian mind in a barbarian so- 
ciety has its uses, if a new step is to be 
made in the history of civilized life. At 
least a futile culture will be brought down 
to common earth. 

The barbarian warriors and the tribes 
from which they came, were not opposed 
to Roman civilization, and certainly did not 
mean to destroy it. Indeed, they asked 
nothing better than to be allowed to share 
in its products food, wealth, security and 
more refined pleasures. Barbarian warriors 
sought pay or booty; and in the later fifth 
century discovered that they could obtain 
more wealth by settling among a civilized 
population than by looting and moving 
from place to place. There were barbarian 
settlements within the Roman frontiers, 
and thousands of Germanic slaves there, 
before there were barbarian invasions. But 
even the barbarians who invaded Italy and 

Gaul did not attempt to destroy the Roman 
social system or the Roman Empire which 
maintained it. They desired only to plunder 
a building which was already falling into 
ruins. And on the other hand, the policy 
of the later Roman Emperors was that 
called "appeasement" in modern times. For 
example, the Visigoths and Burgundians 
were granted leave to retain their conquests, 
in the hope that they would not take any 
more. The Vandals were invited into Africa 
by a Roman General. The Ostrogoths, un- 
der Theodoric, conquered Italy with the 
acquiescence and perhaps the approval of 
the Roman Emperor at Constantinople. It 
is probably true, as was supposed at the 
time, that the Lombards entered Italy at the 
request of a Roman Exarch. And after 
"appeasement" had allowed the establish- 
ment of barbarian kingdoms in Gaul, Spain, 
Africa and Italy, Justinian's attempt in the 
sixth century to adopt the opposite policy 
proved to be quite futile. It came too late 
to save the Roman provinces in the West. 
From the point of view of the governing 
class in the Roman Empire, there was no 
hostility to the Germanic barbarians. The 
Emperors and the Roman generals desired 
to use them. They welcomed them as sol- 
diers, and found them useful and also deco- 
rative as slaves. The imperial Authorities, 
in fear of civil war, had forbidden men of 
senatorial rank to join the army, and were 
not eager to recruit the legions from the 
city populations, which had various other 
duties to perform in industry and transport. 
In consequence the majority of the Roman- 
ized city and country population in western 
Europe was demilitarized; and the best re- 
cruits for the armed forces were found 
among the barbarian tribes. Thus, in the 
fifth century, the word "soldier" (miles) 
was equivalent in meaning to the word 
"barbarian" (barbarus). The situation thus 
created may be regarded as an attempt to 
civilize the barbarians, by using them for 
the only services for which they were com- 
petent within the Roman system. But to 
the minds of men of the fifth century, to 
civilize meant to Romanize; and the bar- 


barians themselves accepted this idea. The 
result was obvious. While it became more 
doubtful in what institution or persons 
moral authority was to be found, clearly 
armed force, and the wealth and power 
which it could obtain, fell more completely 
into the hands of the barbarians as the 
years went by. The barbarians were not 
only soldiers of the line and cavalry, but 

fenerals and even Emperors. The Emperor 
ustin, the uncle of the great Justinian, 
could neither read nor write. Here again, 
then, it must be repeated that the problem 
was not that of civilization in general, but 
of the Roman form of it. A similar problem 
in the modern world exists in Africa. Euro- 
peans desire to civilize the Africans; and 
the Africans desire to be civilized. But be- 
cause both assume that the only form of 
civilization in question is the European, 
Europeans attempt to Europeanize the 
Africans. Some Europeans believe that 
Africans can be used only as cheap labour, 
exactly as Romans of the fifth century be- 

lieved that Germanic barbarians could be 
useful only as slaves or soldiers. And, on 
the other hand, some Africans, in their at- 
tempt to escape from the pastoral and agri- 
cultural stages of social development into 
what they believe to be civilization, have 
contrived to become Europeanized. The 
result is satisfactory neither to Africans nor 
Europeans. As in the fifth century in west- 
ern Europe, a particular type of civilization 
has not proved flexible enough to meet new 
strains and pressures. The Roman crisis has 
come to an end; and that in modern Africa 
has hardly begun. But it is still possible 
that modern European civilization will be 
more successful than the Roman in adapt- 
ing itself to new experiences and alien 
influences. From this point of view, the 
Middle Ages were centuries during which, 
after the failure to adjust the Roman sys- 
tem to the play of new forces, these forces 
built up a new kind of civilized life and 
culture in its first form. . . . 



M. Rostovtseff (18701952) was already well known as a classicist at 
St. Petersburg in his native Russia before he came to the United States 
in 1920. He was professor of ancient history at Wisconsin until !925 
and subsequently professor of ancient history and archaeology at Yale 
until his retirement in 1944. The last few years he was also Director of 
Archaeological Studies and was In charge of the work at Dura near 
ancient Babylon. As a scholar and as a teacher he ranks among the most 
important ancient historians of the twentieth century. His honors were 
many, including the presidency of the American Historical Association 
in 1935. His greatest contribution was made as an economic historian 
of the ancient world; his most important works were Social and Economic 
History of the Roman Empire (1926) and Social and. Economic History 
of the Hellenistic World, 3 vols. (194!). The extract below is from a 
scholarly article in which he discussed various economic explanations for 
the age-old question of the decline of Rome. 

LME DEFINE briefly what I mean 
by the Gibbonian term "decay" or 
"decline and fall" We are learning gradu- 
ally that the term "decay" can hardly be 
applied to what happened in the ancient 
world in the time of the late Roman Empire 
and the beginning of the so-called Middle 
Ages. Historians do not recognize that there 
was anything like "decay" of civilization in 
these periods. What happened was a slow 
and gradual change, a shifting of values in 
the consciousness of men. What seemed to 
be all-important to a Greek of the classical 
or Hellenistic period, or to an educated 
Roman of the time of the Republic and of 
the Early Empire, was no longer regarded 
as vital by the majority of men who lived 
in the late Roman Empire and the Early 
Middle Ages. They had their own notion 
of what was important, and most of what 
was essential in the classical period among 
the constituent parts of ancient civilization 

was discarded by them as futile and often 
detrimental. Since our point of view is 
more or less that of the classical peoples, 
we regard such an attitude of mind as a 
relapse into barbarism," which in fact it 
is not 

Let me quote some striking examples. 
I am not referring to the gradual disintegra- 
tion of the Roman Empire. Politically it 
might be called the "Fall" of the Roman 
Empire that is, of that form of govern- 
ment which had for some centuries united 
almost the whole of the civilized world into 
one state. Whether the creation of the 
Roman Empire in itself was a blessing for 
the human race is a question under debate. 
Many prominent historians think that it 
was more or less of a calamity. It is still 
more problematic whether the disintegra- 
tion of the Roman Empire was detrimental 
for the world or not. Without this disinte- 
gration we should not have, among other 

From M. Rostovtseff, "The Decay of the Ancient World and Its Economic Explanations," The Eco- 
nomic History Review, II (January, 1930), 197-199. By permission of Mrs. Sophie Rostovtseff and 
The Economic History Review. 



things, . . . the great national states of to-day 
(if not of to-morrow). From the point of 
view of "ancient" civilization the late 
Roman Empire was no doubt a period of 
great simplification barbarization as we 
call it or, better, a period of the reduction 
of ancient civilization to some essential 
elements which survived while the rest 

This process of disintegration and simpli- 
fication is, however, only one aspect of the 
phenomenon we are dealing with. While 
the fabric of the ancient Roman Empire 
was disintegrating, the Christian Church, 
whose organization was more or less repro- 
ducing that of the State, was thriving and 
gaining in ecumenic powers. While philo- 
sophical thought and scientific endeavours j 
of the Greek type were gradually dying out, 
theology took an unprecedented develop- 
ment and satisfied the needs of the majority 
of those who cared for intellectual life. 
And in the field of art there was, in this 
time of supposed decay, one triumph after 
another>-We are gradually learning to 
appreciate the originality and force of the 
late Roman "pagan" art, and we have 
already learned to admire the early products 
of Christian art both in architecture and 
in sculpture and especially in painting 
(including the mosaics). 

And, last but not least, while in the West 

the heirs of ancient cities gave birth to fresh 
and vigorous germs of a new civilization, 
both different and similar if compared with 
the old, in the East the same classical 
civilization in its modified Christian aspect 
was still alive and thriving, and in the long 
period of its life experienced many tempo- 
rary declines and many brilliant revivals. 
Even in the West, not everything during 
the centuries after the great crisis of the 
third century was misery and ruin. The 
fourth century witnessed a strong revival 
both from the political and the economic 
point of view, and this revival was not of 
short duration. 

Thus to apply to events in the ancient 
world in the centuries after Diocletian and 
Constantine the term "decay" or "decline" 
is unfair and misleading. If, however, in 
the formula "decay of ancient civilization" 
we lay stress on "ancient" and not on 
"civilization," the formula hits the point. 
No doubt "ancient" that is, "Greco- 
Roman" civilization, the civilization of 
the world of Greco-Roman cities, of the 
Greek "politai" and Roman "cives," was 
gradually simplified, barbarized, reduced to 
its elements, and the bearers of this civiliza- 
tion, the cities and their inhabitants, gradu- 
ally disappeared or changed their aspect 
almost completely. . . . 




TE ROMAN EMPIRE, at the end of the 
:hird century, had one outstanding 
general characteristic: it was an essentially 
Mediterranean commonwealth. Virtually all 
of its territory lay within the watershed of 
that great land-locked sea; the distant 
frontiers of the Rhine, the Danube, the 
Euphrates and the Sahara, may be regarded 
merely as an advanced circle of outer 
defenses protecting the approaches. 

The Mediterranean was, without ques- 
tion, the bulwark of both its political and 
economic unity. Its very existence depended 
on mastery of the sea. Without that great 
trade route, neither the government, nor 
the defense, nor the administration of the 
orbls romanus would have been possible. 

As the Empire grew old this fundamen- 
tally maritime character was, interestingly 
enough, not only preserved but was still 
more sharply defined. When the former 
inland capital, Rome, was abandoned, its 
place was taken by a city which not only 
served as a capital but which was at the same 
time an admirable seaport Constantinople. 

The Empire's cultural development, to 
be sure, had clearly passed its peak. Popu- 
lation decreased, the spirit of enterprise 
waned, barbarian hordes commenced to 
threaten the frontiers, and the increasing 
expenses of the government, fighting for its 
very life, brought in their train a fiscal 
system which more and more enslaved men 
to the State. Nevertheless this general 

deterioration does not seem to have appre- 
ciably affected the maritime commerce of 
the Mediterranean. It continued to be 
active and well sustained, in marked con- 
trast with the growing apathy that charac- 
terized the inland provinces. Trade con- 
tinued to keep the East and the West in 
close contact with each other. There was 
no interruption to the intimate commercial 
relations between those diverse climes 
bathed by one and the same sea. Both 
manufactured and natural products were 
still extensively dealt in: textiles from 
Constantinople, Edessa, Antioch, and Alex- 
andria; wines, oils, and spices from Syria; 
papyrus from Egypt; wheat from Egypt, 
Africa, and Spain; and wines from Gaul 
and Italy. There was even a reform of 
the monetary system based on the gold 
solidus, which served materially to encour- 
age commercial operations by giving them 
the benefit of an excellent currency, uni- 
versally adopted as an instrument of ex- 
change and as a means of quoting prices. 
Of the two great regions of the Empire, 
the East and the West, the first far sur- 
passed the second, both in superiority of 
civilization and in a much higher level of 
economic development. At the beginning 
of the fourth century there were no longer 
any really great cities save in the East 
The center of the export trade was in Syria 
and in Asia Minor, and here also was con- 
centrated, in particular, the textile industry 

From Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade (Princeton, 1925), 
pp. 3-55. By permission o the Princeton University Press, and the Oxford University Press. 




for which the whole Roman world was the 
market and for which Syrian ships were 
the carriers. 

The commercial prominence of the 
Syrians is one of the most interesting facts 
iri the history of the Lower Empire. It 
undoubtedly contributed largely to that pro- 
gressive orientalization of society which was 
due eventually to end in Byzantinisrn. And 
this orientalization, of which the sea was 
the vehicle, is clear proof of the increasing 
importance which the Mediterranean ac- 
quired as the aging Empire grew weak, 
gave way in the North beneath the pressure 
of the barbarians, and contracted more and 
more about the shores of this inland sea. 

The persistence of the Germanic tribes 
in striving, from the very beginning of the 
period of the invasions, to reach these same 
shores and to settle there is worth special 
notice. When, in the course of the fourth 
century, the frontiers gave way for the first 
time under their blows, they poured south- 
xvard in a living flood. The Quadi and the 
Marcomanni invaded Italy; the Goths 
marched on the Bosporus; the Franks, the 
Suevi, and the Vandals, who by now had 
crossed the Rhine, pushed on unhesitatingly 
towards Aquitaine and Spain. They had no 
thought of merely colonizing the provinces 
they coveted. Their dream was rather to 
settle down, themselves, in those happy 
regions where the mildness of the climate 
and the fertility of the soil were matched 
by the charms and the wealth of civilization. 

This initial attempt produced nothing 
more permanent than the devastation which 
it had caused. Rome was still strong enough 
to drive the invaders back beyond the Rhine 
and the Danube. For a century and a half 
she succeeded in restraining diem, but at 
the cost of exhausting her armies and her 

More and more unequal became the 
balance of power. The incursions of the 
barbarians grew more relentless as their 
increasing numbers made the acquisition 
of new territory more imperative, while the 
decreasing population of the Empire made 
a successful resistance constantly less pos- 

sible. Despite the extraordinary skill and 
determination with which the Empire 
sought to stave off disaster, the outcome 
was inevitable. 

At the beginning of the fifth century, all 
was over. The whole West was invaded. 
Roman provinces were transformed into 
Germanic kingdoms. The Vandals were 
installed in Africa, the Visigoths in Aqui- 
taine and in Spain, the Burgundians in the 
Valley of the Rhone, the Ostrogoths in 

This nomenclature is significant. It in- 
cludes only Mediterranean countries, and 
little more is needed to show that the objec- 
tive of the conquerors, free at last to settle 
down where they pleased, was the sea 
that sea which for so long a time the 
Romans had called, with as much affection 
as pride, mare nostrum. Towards the sea, 
as of one accord, they all turned their steps, 
impatient to settle along its shores and to 
enjoy its beauty. 

If "the Franks did not reach the Mediter- 
ranean at their first attempt, it is because, 
having come too late, they found the ground 
already occupied. But they too persisted in 
striving for a foothold there. One of Clovis's 
earliest ambitions was to conquer Provence, 
"' and only the intervention of Theodoric kept 
him from extending the frontiers of his 
kingdom as far as the Cote d'Azur. Yet this 
first lack of success was not due to discour- 
age his successors. A quarter of a century 
later, in 536, the Franks made good use of 
Justinian's offensive against the Ostrogoths 
and wrung from their hard-pressed rivals 
the grant of the coveted territory. It is 
interesting to see how consistently the 
Merovingian dynasty tended, from that date 
on, to become in its turn a Mediterranean 

Childebert and Clotaire, for example, 
ventured upon an expedition beyond the 
Pyrenees in 542, which, however, proved to 
be ill-starred. But it was Italy in particular 
that aroused the cupidity of the Prankish 
kings. They formed an alliance, first with 
the Byzantines 1 and then with the Lombards, 
in the hope of setting foot south of the 

From Medieval Cities 


Alps. Repeatedly thwarted, they persisted 
in fresh attempts. By 539, Theudebert had 
crossed the Alps, and the territories which 
he had occupied were reconquered by 
Narses in 553. Numerous efforts were made 
in 584-585 and from 588 to 590 to get 
possession anew. 

The appearance of the Germanic tribes 
on the shore of the Mediterranean was by 
no means a critical point marking the 
advent of a new era in the history of 
Europe. Great as were the consequences 
which it entailed, it did not sweep the 
boards clean nor even break the tradition. 
The aim of the invaders was not to destroy 
the Roman Empire but to occupy and enjoy 
it. By and large, what they preserved far 
exceeded what they destroyed or what they 
brought that was new. It is true that the 
kingdoms they established on the soil of 
the Empire made an end of the latter in so 
far as being a State in Western Europe. 
From a political point of view the orbis 
romanus, now strictly localized in the East, 
lost that ecumenical character which had 
made its frontiers coincide with the frontiers 
of Christianity. The Empire, however, was 
far from becoming a stranger to the lost 
provinces. Its civilization there outlived its 
authority. By the Church, by language, by 
the superiority of its institutions and law, 
it prevailed over the conquerors. In the 
midst of the troubles, the insecurity, the 
misery and the anarchy which accompanied 
the invasions there was naturally a certain 
decline, but even in that decline there was 
preserved a physiognomy still distinctly 
Roman. The Germanic tribes were unable, 
and in fact did not want, to do without it. 
They barbarized it, but they did not con- 
sciously germanize it. 

Nothing is better proof of this assertion 
than the persistence in the last days of 
the Empire from the fifth to the eighth 
century of that maritime character pointed 
out above. The importance of the Mediter- 
ranean did not grow less after the period of 
the invasions. The sea remained for the 
Germanic tribes what it had been before 
their arrival the very center of Europe, 

the mare nostrum. The sea had had such 
great importance in the political order that 
the deposing of the last Roman Emperor 
in the West (476) was not enough in itself 
to turn historical evolution from its time- 
honored direction, It continued, on the 
contrary, to develop in the same theater and 
under the same influences. No indication 
yet gave warning of the end of that com- 
monwealth of civilization created by the 
Empire from the Pillars of Hercules to the 
Aegean Sea, from the coasts of Egypt and 
Africa to the shores of Gaul, Italy and 
Spain. In spite of the invasion of the bar- 
barians the new world conserved, in all 
essential characteristics, the physiognomy 
of the old. To follow the course of events 
from Romulus Augustulus to Charlemagne 
it is necessary to keep the Mediterranean 
constantly in view. 

All the great events in political history 
are unfolded on its shores. From 493 to 526 
Italy, governed by Theodoric, maintained 
a hegemony over all the Germanic king- 
doms, a hegemony through which the power 
of the Roman tradition was perpetuated 
and assured. After Theodoric, this power 
was still more clearly shown. Justinian 
^ failed by but little of restoring imperial 
unity (527-565). Africa, Spain, and Italy 
were reconquered. The Mediterranean be- 
came again a Roman lake. Byzantium, it is 
true, weakened by the immense effort she 
had just put forth, could neither finish nor 
even preserve intact the astonishing work 
which she had accomplished. The Lombards 
took Northern Italy away from her (568); 
the Visigoths freed themselves from her 
yoke. Nevertheless she did not abandon 
her ambitions. She retained, for a long time 
to come, Africa, Sicily, Southern Italy. Nor 
did she loose her grip on the West thanks 
to the sea, the mastery of which her fleets 
so securely held that the fate of Europe 
rested at that moment, more than ever, on 
the waves of the Mediterranean. 

What was true of the political situation 
held equally well for the cultural. It seems 
hardly necessary to recall that Boethius 
(480-525) and Cassiodorus (477-c. 562) 



were Italians as were St. Benedict (480- 
534) and Gregory the Great (590-604), 
and that Isidorus of Seville (570-636) was 
a Spaniard. It was Italy that maintained 
the last schools at the same time that she 
was fostering the spread of monachism 
north of the Alps. It was in Italy, also, that 
what was left of the ancient culture flour- 
ished side by side with what was brought 
forth anew in the bosom of the Church. 
All the strength and vigor that the Church 
possessed was concentrated in the region of 
the Mediterranean. There alone she gave 
evidence of an organization and spirit ca- 
pable of initiating great enterprises. An 
interesting example of this is the fact that 
Christianity was brought to the Anglo- 
Saxons (596) from the distant shores of 
Italy, not from the neighboring shores of 
Gaul. The mission of St. Augustine is there- 
fore an illuminating sidelight on the historic 
influence retained by the Mediterranean. 
And it seems more significant still when 
we recall that the evangelization of Ireland 
was due to missionaries sent out from 
Marseilles, and that the apostles of Belgium, 
St. Amand (689-693) and St. Remade 
(c. 668), were Aquitanians. 

A brief survey of the economic develop- 
ment of Europe will give the crowning 
touch to the substantiation of the theory 
which has here been put forward. That 
development is, obviously, a clear-cut, direct 
continuation of the economy of the Roman 
Empire. In it are rediscovered all the latter's 
principal traits and, above all, that Mediter- 
ranean character which here is unmistak- 
able. To be sure, a general decline in social 
activity was apparent in this region as in 
all others. By the last days of the Empire 
there was a clearly marked decline which 
the catastrophe of the invasions naturally 
helped accentuate. But it would be a 
decided mistake to imagine that the arrival 
of the Germanic tribes had as a result the 
substitution of a purely agricultural econ- 
omy and a general stagnation in trade for 
urban life and commercial activity. 

The supposed dislike of the barbarians 
for towns is an admitted fable to which 

reality has given the lie. If, on the extreme 
frontiers of the Empire, certain towns were 
put to the torch, destroyed and pillaged, it 
is none the less true that the immense 
majority survived the invasions. A statistical 
survey of cities in existence at the present 
day in France, in Italy and even on the 
banks of the Rhine and the Danube, gives 
proof that, for the most part, these cities 
now stand on the sites where rose the 
Roman cities, and that their very names are 
often but a transformation of Roman names. 

The Church had of course closely pat- 
terned the religious districts after the ad- 
ministrative districts of the Empire. As a 
general rule, each diocese corresponded to 
a civitas. Since the ecclesiastical organiza- 
tion suffered no change during the era of 
the Germanic invasions, the result was that 
in the new kingdoms founded by the con- 
querors it preserved intact this characteristic 
feature. In fact, from the beginning of the 
sixth century the word civitas took the 
special meaning of "episcopal city/' the cen- 
ter of the diocese. In surviving the Empire 
on which it was based, the Church therefore 
contributed very largely to the safeguarding 
of the existence of the Roman cities. 

But it must not be overlooked, on the 
other hand, that these cities in themselves 
long retained a considerable importance. 
Their municipal institutions did not sud- 
denly disappear upon the arrival of the 
Germanic tribes. Not only in Italy, but also 
in Spain and even in Gaul, they kept their 
decuriones a corps of magistrates provided 
with a judicial and administrative authority, 
the details of which are not clear but whose 
existence and Roman origin is a matter of 
record. There is to be noticed, moreover, 
the presence of the defensor civitatis, and 
the practice of inscribing notarized deeds 
in the gesta municipalia. 

It is also well established that these cities 
were the centers of an economic activity 
which itself was a survival of the preceding 
civilization. Each city was the market for 
the surrounding countryside, the winter 
home of the great landed proprietors of the 
neighborhood and, if favorably situated, 

From Medieval Cities 


the center of a commerce the more highly 
developed in proportion to its nearness to 
the shores of the Mediterranean. A perusal 
of Gregory of Tours gives ample proof that 
in the Gaul of his time there was still a 
professional merchant class residing in the 
towns. He cites, in some thoroughly char- 
acteristic passages, those of Verdun, Paris, 
Orleans, Clermont-Ferrand, Marseilles, 
Nimes, and Bordeaux, and the information 
which he supplies concerning them is all 
the more significant in that it is brought 
into his narrative only incidentally. Care 
should of course be taken not to exaggerate 
its value. An equally great fault would be 
to undervalue it. Certainly the economic 
order of Merovingian Gaul was founded on 
agriculture rather than on any other form 
of activity. More certainly still this had 
already been the case under the Roman 

But this does not preclude the fact that 
inland traffic, the import and export of 
goods and merchandise, was carried on to a 
considerable extent. It was an important 
factor in the maintenance of society. An 
indirect proof of this is furnished by the 
institution of market-tolls. Thus were called 
the tolls set up by the Roman administra- 
tion along the roads, in the ports, at bridges 
and fords, and elsewhere. The Prankish 
kings let them all stay in force and drew 
from them such copious revenues that the 
collectors of this class of taxes figured 
among their most useful functionaries. 

The continued commercial activity after 
the disappearance of the Empire, and, like- 
wise, the survival of the towns that were 
the centers thereof and the merchants who 
were its instruments, is explained by the 
continuation of Mediterranean trade. In all 
the chief characteristics it was the same, 
from the fifth to the eighth centuries, as it 
had been just after Constantine. If, as is 
probable, the decline was the more rapid 
after the Germanic invasions, it remains 
none the less true that there is presented a 
picture of uninterrupted intercourse be- 
tween the Byzantine East and the West 
dominated by the barbarians. By means of 

the shipping which was carried on from the 
coasts of Spain and Gaul to those of Syria 
and Asia Minor, the basin of the Mediter- 
ranean did not cease, despite the political 
subdivisions which it had seen take place, 
to consolidate the economic unity which it 
had shaped for centuries under the imperial 
commonwealth. Because of this fact, the 
economic organization of the world lived 
on after the political transformation. 

In lack of other proofs, the monetary 
system of the Prankish kings would alone 
establish this truth convincingly. This sys- 
tem, as is too well known to make necessary 
any lengthy consideration here, was purely 
Roman or, strictly speaking, Romano- 
Byzantine. This is shown by the coins that 
were minted: the solid^ls, the triens, and 
the denarius that is to say, the soit, the 
third-sou and the denier. It is shown further 
by the metal which was employed: gold, 
used for the coinage of the solidus and the 
triens. It is also shown by the weight which 
was given to specie. It is shown, finally, 
by the effigies which were minted on the 
coins. In this connection it is worth noting 
that the mints continued for a long time, 
under the Merovingian kings, the custom 
of representing the bust of the Emperor on 
the coins and of showing on the reverse 
of the pieces the Victoria Augusti and that, 
carrying this imitation to the extreme, when 
the Byzantines substituted the cross for the 
symbol of that victory they did the same. 
Such extreme servility can be explained 
only by the continuing influence of the 
Empire. The obvious reason was the neces- 
sity of preserving, between the local cur- 
rency and the imperial currency, a conform- 
ity which would be purposeless if the most 
intimate relations had not existed between 
Merovingian commerce and the general 
commerce of the Mediterranean. In other 
words, this commerce continued to be 
closely bound up with the commerce of 
the Byzantine Empire. Of such ties, more- 
over, there are abundant proofs and it will 
suffice to mention merely a few of the most 

It should be borne in mind, first of all, 



that at the start of the eighth century 
Marseilles was still the great port of Gaul. 
The terms employed by Gregory of Tours, 
in the numerous anecdotes in which he 
happens to speak of that city, make it seem 
a singularly animated economic center. A 
very active shipping bound it to Constanti- 
nople, to Syria, Africa, Egypt, Spain and 
Italy. The products of the East papyrus, 
spices, costly textiles, wine and oil were 
the basis of a regular import trade. Foreign 
merchants, Jews and Syrians for the most 
part, had their residence there, and their 
nationality is itself an indication of the 
close relations kept up by Marseilles with 
Byzantium. Finally, the extraordinary 
quantity of coins which were struck there 
during the Merovingian era gives material 
proof of the activity of its commerce. The 
population of the city must have comprised, 
aside from the merchants, a rather numer- 
ous class of artisans. In every respect it 
seems, then, to have accurately preserved, 
under the government of the Prankish 
kings, the clearly municipal character of 
Roman cities. 

The economic development of Marseilles 
naturally made itself felt in the hinterland 
of the port. Under its attraction, all the 
commerce of Gaul was oriented toward the 
Mediterranean. The most important market- 
tolls of the Prankish kingdom were situated 
in the neighborhood of the town at Fos, at 
Aries, at Toulon, at Sorgues, at Valence, 
at Vienne, and at Avignon. Here is clear 
proof that merchandise landed in the city 
was expedited to the interior. By the course 
of the Rhone and of the Saone, as well as 
by the Roman roads, it reached the north 
of the country. The charters are still in 
existence by which the Abbey of Corbie 
(Department of Pas-de-Calais) obtained 
from the kings an exemption from tolls at 
Fos on a number of commodities, among 
which may be remarked a surprising variety 
of spices of eastern origin, as well as papy- 
rus. In these circumstances it does not seem 
unwarranted to assume that the commercial 
activity of the ports of Rouen and Nantes, 
on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, as well 

as of Quentovic and Duurstede, on the 
shores of the North Sea, was sustained by 
the ramifications of the export traffic from 
far-off Marseilles. 

But it was in the south of the country 
that this effect was the most appreciable. 
All the largest cities of Merovingian Gaul 
were still to be found, as in the days of the 
Roman Empire, south of the Loire. The 
details which Gregory of Tours supplies 
concerning Clermont-Ferrand and Orleans 
show that they had within their walls veri- 
table colonies of Jews and Syrians, and if 
it was so with those towns which there is 
no reason for believing enjoyed a privileged 
status, it must have been so also with the 
much more important centers such as 
Bordeaux or Lyons. It is an established 
fact, moreover, that Lyons still had at the 
Carolingian era a quite numerous Jewish 

Here, then, is quite enough to support 
the conclusion that Merovingian times 
knew, thanks to the continuance of Medi- 
terranean shipping and the intermediary of 
Marseilles, what we may safely call a great 
commerce. It would certainly be an error 
to assume that the dealings of the oriental 
merchants of Gaul were restricted solely to 
articles of luxury. Probably the sale of 
jewelry, enamels and silk stuffs resulted in 
handsome profits, but this would not be 
enough to explain their number and their 
extraordinary diffusion throughout all the 
country. The traffic of Marseilles was, above 
all else, supported by goods for general 
consumption such as wine and oil, spices 
and papyrus. These commodities, as has 
already been pointed out, were regularly 
exported to the north. 

The oriental merchants of the Prankish 
Empire were virtually engaged in wholesale 
trade. Their boats, after being discharged 
on the quays of Marseilles, certainly carried 
back, on leaving the shores of Provence, 
not only passengers but return freight. Our 
sources of information, to be sure, do not 
tell much about the nature of this freight. 
Among the possible conjectures, one of the 
most likely is that it probably consisted, at 

From Medieval Cities 


least in good part, in human chattels that 
is to say, in slaves. Traffic in slaves did not 
cease to be carried on in the Prankish 
Empire until the end of the ninth century. 
The wars waged against the barbarians of 
Saxony, Thuringia and the Slavic regions 
provided a source of supply which seems 
to have been abundant enough. Gregory 
of Tours speaks of Saxon slaves belonging 
to a merchant of Orleans, and it is a good 
guess that this Samo, who departed in the 
first half of the seventh century with a band 
of companions for the country of Wends, 
whose king he eventually became, was very 
probably nothing more than an adventurer 
trafficking in slaves. And it is of course 
obvious that the slave trade, to which the 
Jews still assiduously applied themselves in 
the ninth century, must have had its origin 
in an earlier era. 

If the bulk of the commerce in Mero- 
vingian Gaul was to be found in the hands 
of oriental merchants, their influence, how- 
ever, should not be exaggerated. Side by 
side with them, and according to all indica- 
tions in constant relations with them, are 
mentioned indigenous merchants. Gregory 
of Tours does not fail to supply information 
concerning them, which would undoubt- 
edly have been more voluminous if his 
narrative had had more than a merely 
incidental interest in them. He shows the 
king consenting to a loan to the merchants 
of Verdun, whose business prospers so well 
that they soon find themselves in a position 
to reimburse him. He mentions the exist- 
ence in Paris of a domus negociantum 
that is to say, apparently, of a sort of market 
or bazaar. He speaks of a merchant profit- 
eering during the great famine of 585 and 
getting rich. And in all these anecdotes he 

dealing, without the least doubt, with 
professionals and not with merely casual 
buyers or sellers. 

The picture which the commerce of 
Merovingian Gaul presents is repeated, 
naturally, in the other maritime Germanic 
kingdoms of the Mediterranean among 
the Ostrogoths of Italy, among the Vandals 
of Africa, among the Visigoths of Spain. 


The Edict of Theodoric contained a quan- 
tity of stipulations relative to merchants. 
Carthage continued to be an important port 
in close relations with Spain, and her ships, 
apparently, went up the coast as far as 
Bordeaux. The laws of the Visigoths men- 
tioned merchants from overseas. 

In all of this is clearly manifest the 
vigorous continuity of the commercial 
development of the Roman Empire after 
the Germanic invasions. They did not put 
an end to the economic unity of antiquity. 
By means of the Mediterranean and the 
relations kept up thereby between the West 
and the East, this unity, on the contrary, 
was preserved with a remarkable distinctive- 
ness. The great inland sea of Europe no 
longer belonged, as before, to a single State. 
But nothing yet gave reason to predict that 
it would soon cease to have its time-honored 
importance. Despite the transformations 
which it had undergone, the new world had 
not lost the Mediterranean character of the 
old. On the shores of the sea was still 
concentrated the better part of its activities, 
No indication yet gave warning of the end 
of the commonwealth of civilization, created 
by the Roman Empire from the Pillars of 
Hercules to the Aegean Sea. At the begin- 
ning of the seventh century, anyone who 
sought to look into the future would have 
been unable to discern any reason for not 
believing in the continuance of the old 

Yet what was then natural and reasonable 
to predict was not to be realized. The world- 
order which had survived the Germanic 
invasions was not able to survive the inva- 
sion of Islam. 

It is thrown across the path of history 
with the elemental force of a cosmic cata- 
clysm. Even in the lifetime of Mahomet 
(571-632) no one could have imagined the 
consequences or have prepared for them. 
Yet the movement took no more than fifty 
years to spread from the China Sea to the 
Atlantic Ocean. Nothing was able to with- 
stand it. At the first blow, it overthrew the 
Persian Empire (637-644). It took from 
the Byzantine Empire, in quick succession, 



Syria (634-636), Egypt (640-642), Africa 
(698). It reached into Spain (711). The 
resistless advance was not to slow down 
until the start of the eighth century, when 
the walls of Constantinople on the one 
side (713) and the soldiers of Charles 
Martel on the other (732) broke that 
great enveloping offensive against the two 
flanks of Christianity. 

But if its force of expansion was ex- 
hausted, it had none the less changed the 
face of the world. Its sudden thrust had 
destroyed ancient Europe. It had put an 
end to the Mediterranean commonwealth 
in which it had gathered its strength. 

The familiar and almost "family" sea 
which once united all the parts of this 
commonwealth was to become a barrier 
between them. On all its shores, for cen- 

turies, social life, in its fundamental charac- 
teristics, had been the same; religion, the 
same; customs and ideas, the same or very 
nearly so. The invasion of the barbarians 
from the North had modified nothing 
essential in that situation, 

But now, all of a sudden, the very lands 
where civilization had been born were torn 
away; the Cult of the Prophet was substi- 
tuted for the Christian Faith, Moslem law 
for Roman law, the Arab tongue for the 
Greek and the Latin tongue. 

The Mediterranean had been a Roman 
lake; it now became, for the most part, a 
Moslem lake. From this time on it sepa- 
rated, instead of uniting, the East and the 
West of Europe, The tie which was still 
binding the Byzantine Empire to the Ger- 
manic kingdoms of the West was broken. 


The tremendous effect the invasion of 
Islam had upon Western Europe has not, 
perhaps, been fully appreciated. 

Out of it arose a new and unparalleled 
situation, unlike anything that had gone 
before. Through the Phoenicians, the 
Greeks, and finally the Romans, Western 
Europe had always received the cultural 
stamp of the East. It had lived, as it were, 
by virtue of the Mediterranean; now for 
the first time it was forced to live by its 
own resources. The center of gravity, here- 
tofore on the shore of the Mediterranean, 
was shifted to the north. As a result the 
Prankish Empire, which had so far been 
playing only a minor role in the history 
of Europe, was to become the arbiter of 
Europe's destinies. 

There is obviously more than mere coin- 
cidence in the simultaneity of the closing 
of the Mediterranean by Islam and the 
entry of the Carolingians on the scene. 
There is the distinct relation of cause and 
effect between the two. The Prankish 
Empire was fated to lay the foundations of 
the Europe of the Middle Ages. But the 
mission which it fulfilled had as an essential 

prior condition the overthrow of the tradi- 
tional world-order. The Carolingians would 
never have been called upon to play the 
part they did if historical evolution had not 
been turned aside from its course and, so 
to speak, "de-Saxoned" by the Moslem in- 
vasion. Without Islam, the Prankish Empire 
would probably never have existed and 
Charlemagne, without Mahomet, would be 

This is made plain enough by the many 
contrasts between the Merovingian era, 
during which the Mediterranean retained 
its time-honored historical importance, and 
the Carolingian era, when that influence 
ceased to make itself felt. These contrasts 
were in evidence everywhere: in religious 
sentiment, in political and social institu- 
tions, in literature, in language and even 
in handwriting. From whatever standpoint 
it is studied, the civilization of the ninth 
century shows a distinct break with the 
civilization of antiquity. Nothing would 
be more fallacious than to see therein a 
simple continuation of the preceding cen- 
turies. The coup d'etat of Pepin the Short 
was considerably more than the substitution 

From Medieval Cities 


of one dynasty for another. It marked a 
new orientation of the course hitherto fol- 
lowed by history. At first glance there seems 
reason to believe that Charlemagne, in 
assuming the title of Roman Emperor and 
of Augustus, wished to restore the ancient 
tradition. In reality, in setting himself up 
against the Emperor of Constantinople, he 
broke that tradition. His Empire was 
Roman only in so far as the Catholic 
Church was Roman. For it was from the 
Church, and the Church alone, that came 
its inspiration. The forces which he placed 
at her service were, moreover, forces of the 
north. His principal collaborators, in reli- 
gious and cultural matters, were no longer, 
as they had previously been, Italians, 
Aquitanians, or Spaniards; they were Anglo- 
Saxons a St. Boniface or an Alcuin or 
they were Swabians, like Einhard. In the 
affairs of the State, which was now cut off 
from the Mediterranean, southerners played 
scarcely any role. The Germanic influence 
commenced to dominate at the very moment 
when the Prankish Empire, forced to turn 
away from the Mediterranean, spread over 
Northern Europe and pushed its frontiers 
as far as the Elbe and the mountains of 
Bohemia. 1 

In the field of economics the contrast, 
which the Carolingian period shows to 
Merovingian times, is especially striking. 
In the days of the Merovingians, Gaul was 
still a maritime country and trade and traffic 
flourished because of that fact. The Empire 
of Charlemagne, on the contrary, was essen- 
tially an inland one. No longer was there 
any communication with the exterior; it 
was a closed State, a State without foreign 
markets, living in a condition of almost 
complete isolation. 

1 The objection may be raised that Charlemagne 
conquered in Italy the kingdom of the Lombards 
and in Spain the region included between the 
Pyrenees and the Ehro. But these thrusts towards 
the south are by no means to be explained Ly a 
desire to dominate the shores of the Mediterra- 
nean. The expeditions against the Lombards were 
provoked by political causes and especially by the 
alliance with the Papacy. The expedition in Spain 
had no other aim than the establishing of a solid 
frontier against the Moslems, 

To be sure, the transition from one era 
to the other was not clear-cut. The trade of 
Marseilles did not suddenly cease but, from 
the middle of the seventh century, waned 
gradually as the Moslems advanced in the 
Mediterranean. Syria, conquered by them 
in 633-638, no longer kept it thriving with 
her ships and her merchandise. Shortly 
afterwards, Egypt passed in her turn under 
the yoke of Islam (638-640), and papyrus 
no longer came to Gaul. A characteristic 
consequence is that, after 677, the royal 
chancellery stopped using papyrus. The 
importation of spices kept up for a while, 
for the monks of Corbie, in 716, believed 
it useful to have ratified for the last time 
their privileges of the tonlieu of Fos. A half 
century later, solitude reigned in the port 
of Marseilles. Her foster-mother, the sea, 
was shut off from her and the economic life 
of the inland regions which had been 
nourished through her intermediary was 
definitely extinguished. By the ninth cen- 
tury Provence, once the richest country of 
Gaul, had become the poorest. 

More and more, the Moslems consoli- 
dated their domination over the sea. In tLe 
course of the ninth century they seized the 
Balearic Isles, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily. On 
the coasts of Africa they founded new ports: 
Tunis (698-703); later on, Mehdia to the 
south of this city; then Cairo, in 973. Pa- 
lermo, where stood a great arsenal, became 
their principal base in the Tyrrhenian Sea. 
Their fleets sailed it in complete mastery; 
commercial flotillas transported the products 
of the West to Cairo, whence they were re- 
dispatched to Bagdad, or pirate fleets devas- 
tated the coasts of Provence and Italy ernd 
put towns to the torch after they had been 
pillaged and their inhabitants captured to 
be sold as slaves. In 889 a band of these 
plunderers even laid hold of Fraxinetum 
(the present Garde-Frainet, in the Depart- 
ment of the Var) not far from Nice, the 
garrison of which, for nearly a century 
thereafter, subjected the neighboring popu- 
lace to continual raids and menaced the 
roads which led across the Alps from France 
to Italy. 



The efforts of Charlemagne and his suc- 
cessors to protect the coasts from Saracen 
raiders were as impotent as their attempts 
to oppose the invasions of the Norsemen in 
the north and west. The hardihood and 
seamanship of the Danes and Norwegians 
made it easy for them to plunder the coasts 
of the Carolingian Empire during the \vhole 
of the eleventh century. They conducted 
their raids not only from the North Sea, 
the Channel, and the Gulf of Gascony, 
but at times even from the Mediterranean. 
Every river which emptied into these seas 
was, at one time or another, ascended by 
their skilfully constructed barks, splendid 
specimens whereof, brought to light by 
recent excavations, are now preserved at 
Oslo. Periodically the valleys of the Rhine, 
the Meuse ? the Scheldt, the Seine, the 
Loire, the Garonne and the Rhone were 
the scene of systematic and persistent pillag- 
ing. The devastation was so complete that, 
in many cases indeed, the population itself 
disappeared. And nothing is a better illus- 
tration of the essentially inland character 
of the Prankish Empire than its inability to 
organize the defense of its coasts, against 
either Saracens or Norsemen. For that 
defense, to be effective, should have been 
a naval defense, and the Empire had no 
fleets, or hastily improvised ones at best. 

Such conditions w r ere incompatible with 
the existence of a commerce of first-rate 
importance. The historical literature of the 
ninth century contains, it is true, certain 
references to merchants (mercatores, negoti- 
ator es), but no illusion should be cherished 
as to their importance. Compared to the 
number of texts which have been preserved 
from that era, these references are extremely 
rare. The capitularies, those regulations 
touching upon every phase of social life, 
are remarkably meagre in so far as applies 
to commerce. From this it may be assumed 
that the latter played a role of only second- 
ary, negligible importance. It was only in 
the north of Gaul that, during the first half 
of the ninth century, trade showed any 
signs of activity. 

The ports of Quentovic (a place now 

vanished, near Etaples in the Department 
of Pas-de-Calais) and Duurstede (on the 
Rhine, southwest of Utrecht) which under 
the Merovingian monarchy were already 
trading with England and Denmark, seem 
to have been centers of a widely extended 
shipping. It is a safe conjecture that because 
of them the river transport of the Friesians 
along the Rhine, the Scheldt and the Meuse 
enjoyed an importance that w T as matched 
by no other region during the reigns of 
Charlemagne and his successors. The cloths 
woven by the peasants of Flanders, and 
which contemporary texts designate by the 
name of Friesian cloaks, together with the 
wines of Rhenish Germany, supplied to 
that river traffic the substance of an export 
trade which seems to have been fairly regu- 
lar up to the day when the Norsemen took 
possession of the ports in question. It is 
known, moreover, that the denier s coined 
at Duurstede had a very extensive circula- 
tion. They served as prototypes for the 
oldest coins of Sweden and Poland, evident 
proof that they early penetrated, no doubt 
at the hands of the Norsemen, as far as the 
Baltic Sea. Attention may also be called, 
as having been the substance of a rather 
extensive trade, to the salt industry of 
Noirmoutier, where Irish ships were to be 
seen. Salzburg salt, on the other hand, was 
shipped along the Danube and its affluents 
to the interior of the Empire. The sale of 
slaves, despite the prohibitions that were 
laid down by the sovereigns, was carried 
on along the western frontiers, where the 
prisoners of war taken from among the 
pagan Slavs found numerous purchasers. 

The Jews seem to have applied them- 
selves particularly to this sort of traffic. 
They were still numerous, and were found 
in every part of Francia. Those in the south 
of Gaul were in close relations with their 
coreligionists of Moslem Spain, to whom 
they are accused of having sold Christian 

It was probably from Spain, or perhaps 
also from Venice, that these Jews obtained 
the spices and the valuable textiles in which 
they dealt. However, the obligation to 

From Medieval Cities 


which they were subjected of having their 
children baptized must have caused a great 
number of them to emigrate south of the 
Pyrenees at an early date, and their com- 
mercial importance steadily declined in the 
course of the ninth century. As for the 
Syrians, they were no longer of importance 
at this era. 

It is, then, most likely that the commerce 
of Carolingian times was very much re- 
duced. Except in the neighborhood of 
Quentovic and Duurstede, it consisted only 
in the transport of indispensable commodi- 
ties, such as wine and salt, in the prohibited 
traffic of a few slaves, and in the barter, 
through the intermediary of the Jews, of a 
small number of products from the East. 

Of a regular and normal commercial 
activity, of steady trading carried on by a 
class of professional merchants, in short, of 
all that constitutes the very essence of an 
economy of exchange worthy of the name, 
no traces are to be found after the closing 
off of the Mediterranean by the Islamic 
invasion. The great number of markets, 
which were to be found in the ninth cen- 
tury, in no way contradicts this assertion. 
They were, as a matter of fact, only small 
local marketplaces, instituted for the weekly 
provisioning of the populace by means of 
the retail sale of foodstuffs from the country. 
As a proof of the commercial activity of the 
Carolingian era, it would be equally beside 
the point to speak of the existence of the 
street occupied by merchants at Aix-la- 
Chapelle near the palace of Charlemagne, 
or of similar streets near certain great abbeys 
such as, for example, that of St. Riquier. 
The merchants with whom we have to do 
here were not, in fact, professional mer- 
chants but servitors charged with the duty 
of supplying the Court or the monks. They 
were, so to speak, employees of the sei- 
gnorial household staff and were in no 
respect merchants. 

There is, moreover, material proof of the 
economic decline which affected Western 
Europe from the day when she ceased to 
belong to the Mediterranean common- 
wealth. It is furnished by the reform of the 

monetary system, initiated by Pepin the 
Short and completed by Charlemagne. That 
reform abandoned gold coinage and substi- 
tuted silver in its place. The solidus which 
had heretofore, conforming to the Roman 
tradition, constituted the basic monetary 
unit, was now only nominal money. The 
only real coins from this time on were the 
silver deniers, weighing about two grams, 
the metallic value of which, compared to 
that of the dollar, was approximately eight 
and one-half cents. The metallic value of 
the Merovingian gold solidus being nearly 
three dollars, the importance of the reform 
can be readily appreciated. Undoubtedly 
it is to be explained only by a prodigious 
falling off of both trading and wealth. 

If it is admitted, and it must be admitted, 
that the reappearance of gold coinage, with 
the florins of Florence and the ducats of 
Venice in the thirteenth century, charac- 
terized the economic renaissance of Europe, 
the inverse is also true: the abandoning of 
gold coinage in the eighth century was the 
manifestation of a profound decline. It is 
not enough to say that Pepin and Charle- 
magne wished to remedy the monetary dis- 
order of the last days of the Merovingian 
era. It would have been quite possible for 
them to find a remedy without giving up 
the gold standard. They gave up the stand- 
ard, obviously, from necessity that is to 
say, as a result of the disappearance of the 
yellow metal in Gaul. And this disappear- 
ance had no other cause than the interrup- 
tion of the commerce of the Mediterranean. 
The proof of this is given by the fact that 
Southern Italy, remaining in contact with 
Constantinople, retained like the latter a 
gold standard, for which the Carolingian 
sovereigns were forced to substitute a silver 
standard. The very light weight of their 
deniers, moreover, testifies to the economic 
isolation o their Empire. It is inconceivable 
that they would have reduced the monetary 
unit to a thirtieth of its former value if 
there had been preserved the slightest bond 
between their States and the Mediterranean 
regions where the gold solidus continued 
to circulate. 



But this is not all. The monetary reform 
of the ninth century not only was in keep- 
ing with the general impoverishment of the 
era in which it took place, but with the 
circulation of money which \vas noteworthy 
for both lightness and inadequacy. In the 
absence of centers of attraction sufficiently 
powerful to draw money from afar, it 
remained, so to speak, stagnant. Charle- 
magne and his successors in vain ordered 
that deniers should be coined only in the 
royal mints. Under the reign of Louis the 
Pious, it was necessary to give to certain 
churches authorization to coin money, in 
view of the difficulties, under which they 
labored, of obtaining cash. From the second 
half of the ninth century on, the authoriza- 
tion to establish a market was almost always 
accompanied by the authorization to estab- 
lish a mint in the same place. The State 
could not retain the monopoly of minting 
coins. It was consistently frittered away. 
And that is again a manifestation, by no 
means equivocal, of the economic decline. 
History shows that the better commerce is 
sustained, the more the monetary system is 
centralized and simplified. The dispersion, 
the variety, and in fact the anarchy which 
it manifests as we follow the course of the 
ninth century, ends by giving striking 
confirmation to the general theory here put 

There have been some attempts to attrib- 
ute to Charlemagne a far-seeing political 
economy. This is to lend him ideas which, 
however great we suppose his genius to 
have been, it is impossible for him to have 
had. No one can submit with any likeli- 
hood of truth that the projects which he 
commenced in 793, to join the Rednitz to 
the Altmuhl and so establish communica- 
tion between the Rhine and the Danube, 
could have had any other purpose than 
the transport of troops, or that the wars 
against the Avars were provoked by the 
desire to open up a commercial route to 
Constantinople. The stipulations, in other 
respects inoperative, of the capitularies 
regarding coinages, weights and measures, 
the market-tolls and the markets, were inti- 

mately bound up with the general system 
of regulation and control which was typical 
of Carolingian legislation. The same is true 
regarding the measures taken against usury 
and the prohibition enjoining members of 
the clergy from engaging in business. Their 
purpose was to combat fraud, disorder and 
indiscipline and to impose a Christian 
morality on the people. Only a prejudiced 
point of view can see in them an attempt 
to stimulate the economic development of 
the Empire. 

We are so accustomed to consider the 
reign of Charlemagne as an era of revival 
that we are unconsciously led to imagine 
an identical progress in all fields. Unfor- 
tunately, what is true of literary culture, of 
the religious State, of customs, institutions 
and statecraft is not true of communications 
and commerce. Every great thing that 
Charlemagne accomplished was accom- 
plished either by his military strength or 
by his alliance with the Church. For that 
matter, neither the Church nor arms could 
overcome the circumstances in virtue of 
which the Prankish Empire found itself 
deprived of foreign markets. It was forced, 
in fact, to accommodate itself to a situation 
which was inevitably prescribed. History is 
obliged to recognize that, however brilliant 
it seems in other respects, the cycle of 
Charlemagne, considered from an economic 
viewpoint, is a cycle of regression. 

The financial organization of the Prank- 
ish Empire makes this plain. It was, indeed, 
as rudimentary as could be. The poll tax, 
which the Merovingians had preserved in 
imitation of Rome, no longer existed. The 
resources of the sovereign consisted only in 
the revenue from his demesnes, in the 
tributes levied on conquered tribes and in 
the booty got by war. The market-tolls no 
longer contributed to the replenishment of 
the treasury, thus attesting to the commer- 
cial decline of the period. They were noth- 
ing more than a simple extortion brutally 
levied in kind on the infrequent merchan- 
dise transported by the rivers or along the 
roads. The sorry proceeds, which should 
have served to keep up the bridges, the 

From Medieval Cities 


docks and the highways, were swallowed 
up by the functionaries who collected them. 
The missi dominici, created to supervise 
their administration, were impotent in 
abolishing the abuses which they proved 
to exist because the State, unable to pay its 
agents, was likewise unable to impose its 
authority on them. It was obliged to call 
on the aristocracy which, thanks to their 
social status, alone could give free services. 
But in so doing it was constrained, for lack 
of money, to choose the instruments of 
power from among the midst of a group 
of men whose most evident interest was to 
diminish that power. The recruiting of the 
functionaries from among the aristocracy 
was the fundamental vice of the Prankish 
Empire and the essential cause of its dis- 
solution, which became so rapid after the 
death of Charlemagne. Surely, nothing is 
more fragile than that State the sovereign 
of which, all-powerful in theory, is depend- 
ent in fact upon the fidelity of his inde- 
pendent agents. 

The feudal system was in embryo in this 
contradictory situation. The Carolingian 
Empire would have been able to keep going 
only if it had possessed, like the Byzantine 
Empire or the Empire of the Caliphs, a tax 
system, a financial control, a fiscal centrali- 
zation and a treasury providing for the 
salary of functionaries, for public works, 
and for the maintenance of the army and 
the navy. The financial impotence which 
caused its downfall was a clear demonstra- 
tion of the impossibility it encountered of 
maintaining a political structure on an 
economic base which was no longer able to 
support the load. 

That economic base of the State, as of 
society, was from this time on the J&nded 
proprietor. Just as the Carolingian Empire 
was an inland State without foreign mar- 
kets, so also was it an essentially agricultural 
State. The traces of commerce which were 
still to be found there were negligible. 
There was no other property than landed 
property, and no other work than rural 
work. As has already been stated above, 
this predominance of agriculture was no 

new fact. It existed in a very distinct form 
in the Roman era and it continued with 
increasing strength in the Merovingian era. 
As early as the close of antiquity, all the 
west of Europe was covered with great 
demesnes belonging to an aristocracy the 
members of which bore the tide of senators. 
More and more, property was disappearing 
in a transformation into hereditary tenures, 
while the old free farmers were themselves 
undergoing a transformation into "cultiva- 
tors" bound to the soil, from father to son. 
The Germanic invasions did not noticeably 
alter this state of things. We have definitely 
given up the idea of picturing the Germanic 
tribes in the light of a democracy of peas- 
ants, all on an equal footing. Social distinc- 
tions were very great among them even 
when they first invaded the Empire. They 
comprised a minority of the wealthy and a 
majority of the poor. The number of slaves 
and half-free was considerable. 

The arrival of the invaders in the Roman 
provinces brought wdth it, then, no over- 
throw of the existing order. The newcomers 
preserved, in adapting themselves thereto, 
the status quo. Many of the invaders 
received from the king or acquired by force 
or by marriage, or otherwise, great demesnes 
which made them the equals of the "sena- 
tors." The landed aristocracy, far from dis- 
appearing, was on the contrary invigorated 
by new elements. 

The disappearance of the small free pro- 
prietors continued. It seems, in fact, that 
as early as the start of the Carolingian 
period only a very small number of them 
still existed in Gaul. Charlemagne in vain 
took measures to safeguard those who were 
left. The need of protection inevitably made 
them turn to the more powerful individuals 
to whose patronage they subordinated their 
persons and their possessions. 

Large estates, then, kept on being more 
and more generally in evidence after the 
period of the invasions. The favor which 
the kings showed the Church was an addi- 
tional factor in this development, and the 
religious fervor of the aristocracy had the 
same effect. Monasteries, whose number 



multiplied with such remarkable rapidity 
after the seventh century, were receiving 
bountiful gifts of land. Everywhere eccle- 
siastical demesnes and lay demesnes were 
mixed up together, uniting not only culti- 
vated ground, but woods, heaths and waste- 

The organization of these demesnes 
remained in conformity, in Prankish Gaul, 
with what it had been in Roman Gaul. 
It is clear that this could not have been 
otherwise. The Germanic tribes had no 
motive for, and were, furthermore, incapa- 
ble of, substituting a different organization. 
It consisted, in its essentials, of classifying 
all the land in two groups, subject to two 
distinct forms of government. The first, the 
less extensive, was directly exploited by 
the proprietor; the second was divided, 
under deeds of tenure, among the peasants. 
Each of the villae of which a demesne was 
composed comprised both seignorial land 
and censal land, divided in units of cultiva- 
tion held by hereditary right by manants or 
villeins in return for the prestation of rents, 
in money or in kind, and statute-labor. 

As long as urban life and commerce 
flourished, the great demesnes had a market 
for the disposal of their produce. There is 
no room for doubt that during all the 
Merovingian era it was through them that 
the city groups were provisioned and that 
the merchants were supplied. But it could 
not help be otherwise when trade disap- 
peared and therewith the merchant class 
and the municipal population. The great 
estates suffered the same fate as the Prankish 
Empire. Like it, they lost their markets. 
The possibility of selling abroad existed no 
longer because of the lack of buyers, and it 
became useless to continue to produce more 
than the indispensable minimum for the 
subsistence of the men, proprietors or ten- 
ants, living on the estate. 

For an economy of exchange was substi- 
tuted an economy of consumption. Each 
demesne, in place of continuing to deal 
with the outside, constituted from this time 
on a little world of its own. It lived by 
itself and for itself, in the traditional immo- 

bility of a patriarchal form of government. 
The ninth century is the golden age of 
what w r e have calied the closed domestic 
economy and which we might call, with 
more exactitude, the economy of no markets. 

This economy, in which production had 
no other aim than the sustenance of the 
demesnial group and which in consequence 
was absolutely foreign to the idea of profit, 
can not be considered as a natural and 
spontaneous phenomenon. It was, on the 
contrary, merely the result of an evolution 
which forced it to take this characteristic 
form. The great proprietors did not give up 
selling the products of their lands of their 
own free will; they stopped because they 
could not do otherwise. Certainly if com- 
merce had continued to supply them regu- 
larly with the means of disposing of these 
products abroad, they would not have neg- 
lected to profit thereby. They did not sell 
because they could not sell, and they could 
not sell because markets were wanting. The 
closed demesnial organization, w 7 hich made 
its appearance at the beginning of the ninth 
century, was a phenomenon due to compul- 
sion. That is merely to say that it was an 
abnormal phenomenon. 

This can be most effectively shown by 
comparing the picture, which Carolingian 
Europe presents, with that of Southern 
Foissia at the same era. 

We know that bands of sea-faring Norse- 
men, that is to say of Scandinavians origi- 
nally from Sweden, established their domi- 
nation over the Slavs of the watershed of 
the Dnieper during the course of the ninth 
century. These conquerors, whom the con- 
quered designated by the name of Russians, 
naturally had to congregate in groups in 
order to insure their safety in the midst of 
the populations they had subjected. 

For this purpose they built fortified en- 
closures, called gorods in the Slavic tongue, 
where they settled with their princes and 
the images of their gods. The most ancient 
Russian cities owe their origin to these 
entrenched camps. There were such camps 
at Smolensk, Suzdal and Novgorod; the 
most important and the most civilized was 

From Medieval Cities 


at Kiev, the prince of which ranked above 
all the other princes. The subsistence of the 
invaders was assured by tributes levied on 
the native population. 

It was therefore possible for the Russians 
to live off the land, without seeking abroad 
to supplement the resources which the 
country gave them in abundance. They 
would have done so, without doubt, and 
been content to use the prestations of their 
subjects if they had found it impossible, like 
their contemporaries in Western Europe, to 
communicate with the exterior. But the 
position which they occupied must have 
early led them to practise an economy of 

Southern Russia was placed, as a matter 
of fact, between two regions of a superior 
civilization. To the east, beyond the Caspian 
Sea, extended the Caliphate of Bagdad; to 
the south, the Black Sea bathed the coasts 
of the Byzantine Empire and pointed the 
way towards Constantinople. The barbar- 
ians felt at once the effect of these two 
strong centers of attraction. To be sure, they 
were in the highest degree energetic, enter- 
prising and adventurous, but their native 
qualities only served to turn circumstances 
to the best account. Arab merchants, Jews, 
and Byzantines were already frequenting 
the Slavic regions when they took posses- 
sion, and showed them the route to follow. 
They themselves did not hesitate to plunge 
along it under the spur of the love of gain, 
quite as natural to primitive man as to 

The country they occupied placed at 
their disposal products particularly well 
suited for trade with rich empires accus- 
tomed to the refinements of life. Its immense 
forests furnished them with a quantity of 
honey, precious in those days when sugar 
was still unknown, and furs, sumptuousness 
in which was a requisite, even in southern 
climes, of luxurious dress and equipment. 

Slaves were easier still to procure and, 
thanks to the Moslem harems and the great 
houses or Byzantine workshops, had a sale 
as sure as it was remunerative. Thus as early 
as the ninth century, while the Empire of 

Charlemagne was kept in isolation after the 
closing of the Mediterranean, Southern 
Russia on the contrary was induced to sell 
her products in the two great markets which 
exercised their attraction on her. The 
paganism of the Scandinavians of the 
Dnieper left them free of the religious 
scruples which prevented the Christians of 
the west from having dealings with the 
Moslems. Belonging neither to the faith of 
Christ nor to that of Mahomet, they only 
asked to get rich, in dealing impartially 
with the followers of either. 

The importance of the trade which they 
kept up as much with the Moslem Empire 
as with the Greek, is made clear by the 
extraordinary number of Arab and Byzan- 
tine coins discovered in Russia and which 
mark, like a golden compass needle, the 
direction of the commercial routes. 

In the region of Kiev they followed to 
the south the course of the Dnieper, to the 
east the Volga, and to the north the direc- 
tion marked by the Western Dvina or the 
lakes which abut the Gulf of Bothnia. 
Information from Jewish or Arab travellers 
and from Byzantine writers fortunately 
supplements the data from archaeological 
records. It will suffice here to give a brief 
resume of what Constantine Porphyrogene- 
tus 2 reports in the ninth century. He shows 
the Russians assembling their boats at Kiev 
each year after the ice melts. Their flotilla 
slowly descends the Dnieper, whose numer- 
ous cataracts present obstacles that have to 
be avoided by dragging the barks along the 


banks. The sea once reached, they sail 
before the wind along the coasts towards 
Constantinople, the supreme goal of their 
long and perilous voyage. There the Russian 
merchants had a special quarter and made 
commercial treaties, the oldest of which 
dates back to the ninth century, regulating 
their relations with the population. Many 
of them, seduced by its attractions, settled 
down there and took service in the Imperial 

2 Byzantine Emperor (912-959) and scholar who 
wrote or inspired several works which provide 
much of our knowledge of his time. [Editor's note] 



Guard, as had done, before that time, the 
Germans in the legions of Rome. 

The City of the Emperors (CzarogracT) 
had for the Russians a fascination the 
influence of which has lasted across the 
centuries. It was from her that they received 
Christianity (957-1015); it was from her 
that they borrowed their art, their writing, 
the use of money and a good part of their 
administrative organization. Nothing more 
is needed to demonstrate the role played 
by Byzantine commerce in their social life. 
It occupied so essential a place therein that 
without it their civilization would remain 
inexplicable. To be sure, the forms in which 
it is found are very primitive, but the 
important thing is not the forms of this 
traffic; it is the effect it had. 

Among the Russians of the late Middle 
Ages it actually determined the constitution 
of society. By striking contrast with what 
has been shown to be the case with their 
contemporaries of Carolingian Europe, not 
only the importance but the very idea of 
real estate was unknown to them. Their 
notion of wealth comprised only personal 
property, of which slaves were the most 
valuable. They were not interested in land 
except in so far as, by their control of it, 
they were able to appropriate its products. 
And if this conception was that of a class 
of warrior-conquerors, there is but little 
doubt that it was held for so long because 
these warriors were, at the same time, 
merchants. We might, incidentally, add 
that the concentration of the Russians in 
the gorods t motivated in the beginning by 
military necessity, is itself found to fit 
in admirably with commercial needs. An 
organization created by barbarians for the 
purpose of keeping conquered populations 
under the yoke was well adapted to the sort 
of life which theirs became after they gave 
heed to the economic attraction of Byzan- 
tium and Bagdad. Their example shows 
that a society does not necessarily have to 
pass through an agrarian stage before giving 
itself over to commerce. Here commerce 
appears as an original phenomenon. And if 
this is so, it is because the Russians instead 

of finding themselves isolated from the out- 
side world like Western Europe were on 
the contrary pushed or, to use a better word, 
drawn into contact with it from the begin- 
ning. Out of this derive the violent contrasts 
which are disclosed in comparing their 
social state with that of the Carolingian 
Empire: in place of a demesnial aristocracy, 
a commercial aristocracy; in place of serfs 
bound to the soil, slaves considered as 
instruments of work; in place of a popula- 
tion living in the country, a population 
gathered together in towns; in place, finally, 
of a simple economy of consumption, an 
economy of exchange and a regular and 
permanent commercial activity. 

That these outstanding contrasts were 
the result of circumstances which gave 
Russia markets while depriving the Caro- 
lingian Empire of them, history clearly 
demonstrates. The activity of Russian trade 
was maintained, indeed, only as long as the 
routes to Constantinople and Bagdad re- 
mained open before it. It was not fated to 
withstand the crisis which the Petchenegs 
brought about in the eleventh century. The 
invasion of these barbarians along the shores 
of the Caspian and the Black Seas brought 
in their train consequences identical to 
those which the invasion of Islam in the 
Mediterranean had had for Western Europe 
in the eighth century. 

Just as the latter cut the communications 
between Gaul and the East, the former cut 
the communications between Russia and 
her foreign markets. And in both quarters, 
the results of this interruption coincide with 
a singular exactitude. In Russia as in Gaul, 
when means of communication disappeared 
and towns were depopulated and the popu- 
lace forced to find near at hand the means 
of their subsistence, a period of agricultural 
economy was substituted for a period of 
commercial economy. Despite the differ- 
ences in details, it was the same picture in 
both cases. The regions of the south, ruined 
and troubled by the barbarians, gave way 
in importance to the regions of the north. 
Kiev fell into a decline as Marseilles had 
fallen, and the center of the Russian State 

From Medieval Cities 


was removed to Moscow just as the center 
of the Prankish State, with the Carolingian 
dynasty, had been removed to the watershed 
of the Rhine. And to end by making the 
parallel still more conclusive, there arose, 
in Russia as in Gaul, a landed aristocracy, 
and a demesnial system was organized in 
which the impossibility of exporting or of 
selling forced production to be limited to 
the needs of the proprietor and his peasants. 
So, in both cases, the same causes pro- 
duced the same effects. But they did not 
produce them at the same date. Russia was 

living by trade at an era when the Carolin- 
gian Empire knew only the demesnial 
regime, and she in turn inaugurated this 
form of government at the very moment 
when Western Europe, having found new 
markets, broke away from it. We shall 
examine further how this break was accom- 
plished. It will suffice for the moment to 
have proved, by the example of Russia, the 
theory that the economy of the Carolingian 
era was not the result of an internal evolu- 
tion but must be attributed to the closing 
of the Mediterranean by Islam. 




XDM whatever standpoint we regard it, 
hen, the period inaugurated by the 
establishment of the Barbarians within the 
Empire introduced no absolute historical 
innovation. 1 What the Germans destroyed 
was not the Empire, but the Imperial gov- 
ernment in 'parties occidentis. They them- 
selves acknowledged as much by installing 
themselves as foederati. Far from seeking 
to replace the Empire by anything new, 
they established themselves within it 7 and 
although their settlement was accompanied 
by a process of serious degradation, they 
did not introduce a new scheme of govern- 
ment; the ancient palazzo, so to speak, was 
divided up into apartments, but it still sur- 
vived as a building. In short, the essential 
character of "Romania" still remained 
Mediterranean. The frontier territories, 
which remained Germanic, and England, 
played no part in it as yet; it is a mistake 
to regard them at this period as a point of 
departure. Considering matters as they 
actually were, we see that the great novelty 
of the epoch was a political fact: in the 
Occident a plurality of States had replaced 
the unity of the Roman State. And this, 
of course, was a very considerable novelty. 
The aspect of Europe was changing, but 

1 These things were retained : the language, the 
currency, writing (papyrus), weights and meas- 
ures, the lands of foodstuffs in common use, the 
social classes, the religion the role of Arianism 
has been exaggerated art, the law, the admin- 
istration, the taxes, the economic organization. 
[Pirenne's note] 

the fundamental character of its life re- 
mained the same. These States, which have 
been described as national States, were not 
really national at all, but were merely frag- 
ments of the great unity which they had 
replaced. There was no profound transfor- 
mation except in Britain. 

There the Emperor and the civilization 
of the Empire had disappeared. Nothing 
remained of the old tradition. A new world 
had made its appearance. The old law and 
language and institutions were replaced by 
those of the Germans. A civilization of a 
new type was manifesting itself, which we 
may call the Nordic or Germanic civiliza- 
tion. It was completely opposed to the 
Mediterranean civilization syncretized in 
the Late Empire, that last form of antiquity. 
Here was no trace of the Roman State with 
its legislative ideal, its civil population, and 
its Christian religion, but a society which 
had preserved the blood tie between its 
members; the family community, with all 
the consequences which it entailed in law 
and morality and economy; a paganism like 
that of the heroic poems; such vere the 
things that constituted the originality of 
these Barbarians, who had thrust back the 
ancient world in order to take its place. 
In Britain a new age was beginning, which 
did not gravitate towards the South. The 
man of the North had conquered and taken 
for his own this extreme corner of that 
"Romania" of which he had no memories, 
whose majesty he repudiated, and to which 

From Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne (London, 1939), pp. 140-144, 147-150, 265- 
285. By permission of George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 


From Mohammed and Charlemagne 


he owed nothing. In every sense of the 
word he replaced it, and in replacing it he 
destroyed it. 

The Anglo-Saxon invaders came into the 
Empire fresh from their Germanic environ- 
ment, and had never been subjected to the 
influences of Rome. Further, the province 
of Britain, in which they had established 
themselves, was the least Romanized of all 
the provinces. In Britain, therefore, they 
remained themselves: the Germanic, Nor- 
dic, Barbarian soul of peoples whose cul- 
ture might almost be called Homeric has 
been the essential factor in the history of 
this country. 

But the spectacle presented by this 
Anglo-Saxon Britain was unique. We 
should seek in vain for anything like it on 
the Continent. There "Romania" still ex- 
isted, except on the frontier, or along the 
Rhine, in the decumate lands, and along 
the Danube that is to say, in the prov- 
inces of Germania, Raetia, Noricum and 
Pannonia, all close to that Germania whose 
inhabitants had overflowed into the Empire 
and driven it before them. But these border 
regions played no part of their own, since 
they were attached to States which had 
been established, like that of the Franks or 
the Ostrogoths, in the heart of "Romania." 
And there it is plain that the old state of 
affairs still existed. The invaders, too few 
in number, and also too long in contact 
with the Empire were inevitably absorbed, 
and they asked nothing better. What may 
well surprise us is that there was so little 
Germanism in the new States, all of which 
were ruled by Germanic dynasties. Lan- 
"guage, religion, institutions and art were 
entirely, or almost entirely, devoid of Ger- 
manism. We find some Germanic influ- 
ences in the law of those countries situated 
to the north of the Seine and the Alps, but 
until the Lombards arrived in Italy these 
did not amount to very much. If some have 
held a contrary belief, it is because they 
have followed the Germanic school and 
have wrongly applied to Gaul, Italy, and 
Spain what they find in the Leges Bartjaro- 
rum of the Salians, the Ripuarians and the 

Bavarians. They have also extended to the 
period which preceded the Carolingians 
what is true only of the latter. Moreover, 
they have exaggerated the role of Merovin- 
gian Gaul by allowing themselves to be 
governed by the thought of what it later 
became, but as yet was not. 

What was Clovis as compared with The- 
odoric? And let it be noted that after Clovis 
the Prankish kings, despite all their efforts, 
could neither establish themselves in Italy, 
nor even recapture the Narbonnaise from 
the Visigoths. It is evident that they were 
tending towards the Mediterranean. The 
object of their conquest beyond the Rhine 
was to defend their kingdom against the 
Barbarians, and was far from having the 
effect of Germanizing it. But to admit that 
under the conditions of their establishment 
in the Empire, and with the small forces 
which they brought with them, the Visi- 
goths, Burgundi, Ostrogoths, Vandals and 
Franks could have intended to Germanize 
the Empire is simply to admit the 

Moreover, we must not forget the part 
played by the Church, within which Rome 
had taken refuge, and which, in imposing 
itself upon the Barbarians, was at the same 
time imposing Rome upon them. In the 
Occident, in the Roman world which had 
become so disordered as a State, the Ger- 
manic kings were, so to speak, points of 
political crystallization. But the old, or shall 
we say, the classic social equilibrium still 
existed in the world about them, though it 
had suffered inevitable losses. 

In other words, the Mediterranean unity 
which was the essential feature of this an- 
cient world was maintained in all its vari- 
ous manifestations. The increasing Helleni- 
zation of the Orient did not prevent it from 
continuing to influence the Occident by its 
commerce, its art, and the vicissitudes of its 
religious life. To a certain extent, as we 
have seen, the Occident was becoming 

And this explains Justinian's impulse of 
reconquest, which almost restored the Med - 
iterranean to the status of a Roman lake. 



And regarding it from our point of view, 
it is, o course, plainly apparent that this 
Empire could not last But this was not the 
view of its contemporaries. The Lombard 
invasion was certainly less important than 
has been supposed. The striking thing 
about it is its tardiness. 

Justinian's Mediterranean policy - and it 
really was a Mediterranean policy, since he 
sacrificed to this policy his conflicts with 
the Persians and the Slavs was in tune 
with the Mediterranean spirit of European 
civilization as a whole from the 5th to the 
7th century. It is on the shores of this mare 
nostrum that we find all the specific mani- 
festations of the life of the epoch. Com- 
merce gravitated toward the sea, as under 
the Empire; there the last representatives 
of the ancient literature Boetius, Cassio- 
dorus WTOte their works; there, with 
Caesarius of Aries, and Gregory the Great, 
the new literature of the Church was born 
and began to develop; there writers like 
Isidore of Seville made the inventory of 
civilization from which the Middle Ages 
obtained their knowledge of antiquity; 
there, at Lerins, or at Monte Cassino, mo- 
nasticism, coining from the Orient, was 
acclimatized to its Occidental environment; 
from the shores of the Mediterranean came 
the missionaries who converted England, 
and it was there that arose the characteristic 
monuments of that Hellenistico-Oriental 

art which seemed destined to become the 
art of the Occident, as it had remained that 
of the Orient. 

There was as yet nothing, in the 7th cen- 
tury, that seemed to announce the end of 
the community of civilization established 
by the Roman Empire from the Pillars of 
Hercules to the Aegean Sea and from the 
shores of Egypt and Africa to those of Italy, 
Gaul, and Spain. The new world had not 
lost the Mediterranean character of the an- 
cient world. All its activities were concen- 
trated and nourished on the shores of the 

There was nothing to indicate that the 
millenary evolution of society was to be 
suddenly interrupted. No one was antici- 
pating a catastrophe. Although the imme- 
diate successors of Justinian were unable 
to continue his work, they did not repudi- 
ate it. They refused to make any concession 
to the Lombards; they feverishly fortified 
Africa; they established their themes there 
as in Italy; their policies took account of 
the Franks and the Visigoths alike; their 
fleet controlled the sea; and the Pope of 
Rome regarded them as his Sovereigns. 

The greatest intellect of the Occident, 
Gregory the Great, Pope from 590 to 604, 
saluted the Emperor Phocas, in 603, as 
reigning only over free men, while the 
kings of the Occident reigned only over 
slaves. . . . 



Nothing could be more suggestive, noth- 
ing could better enable us to comprehend 
the expansion of Islam in the 7th century, 
than to compare its effect upon the Roman 
Empire with that of the Germanic inva- 
sions. These latter invasions were the 
climax of a situation which was as old as 
the Empire, and indeed even older, and 
which had weighed upon it more or less 
heavily throughout its history. When the 
Empire, its frontiers penetrated, abandoned 
the struggle, the invaders promptly allowed 

themselves to become absorbed in it, and as 
far as possible they maintained its civiliza- 
tion, and entered into the community upon 
which this civilization was based. 

On the other hand, before the Moham- 
medan epoch the Empire had had practi- 
cally no dealings with the Arabian penin- 
sula. It contented itself with building a 
wall to protect Syria against the nomadic 
bands of the desert, much as it had built a 
wall in the north of Britain in order to 
check the invasions of the Picts; but this 
Syrian limes, some remains of which may 

From Mohammed and Charlemagne 


still be seen on crossing the desert, was in 
no way comparable to that of the Rhine or 
the Danube. 

The Empire had never regarded this as 
one of its vulnerable points, nor had it ever 
massed there any large proportion of its 
military forces. It was a frontier of inspec- 
tion, which was crossed by the caravans 
that brought perfumes and spices. The 
Persian Empire, another of Arabia's neigh- 
bours, had taken the same precaution. After 
all, there was nothing to fear from the 
nomadic Bedouins of the Peninsula, whose 
civilization was still in the tribal stage, 
whose religious beliefs were hardly better 
than fetichism, and who spent their time 
in making war upon one another, or pillag- 
ing the caravans that travelled from south 
to north, from Yemen to Palestine, Syria 
and the Peninsula of Sinai, passing through 
Mecca and Yathreb (the future Medina). 

Preoccupied by their secular conflict, 
neither the Roman nor the Persian Empire 
seems to have had any suspicion of the 
propaganda by which Mohammed, amidst 
the confused conflicts of the tribes, was on 
the point of giving his own people a reli- 
gion which it would presently cast upon 
the world, while imposing its own do- 
minion. The Empire was already in deadly 
danger when John of Damascus was still 
regarding Islam as a sort of schism, of much 
the same character as previous heresies. 

When Mohammed died, in 632, there 
was as yet no sign of the peril which was 
to manifest itself in so overwhelming a 
fashion a couple of years later. No meas- 
ures had been taken to defend the frontier. 
It is evident that whereas the Germanic 
menace had always attracted the attention 
of the Emperors, the Arab onslaught took 
them by surprise. In a certain sense, the 
expansion of Islam was due to chance, if 
we can give this name to the unpredictable 
consequence of a combination of causes. 
The success of the attack is explained by 
the exhaustion of the two Empires which 
marched with Arabia, the Roman and the 
Persian, at the end of the long struggle 
between them, which had at last culmi- 

nated in the victory of Heraclius over 
Chosroes (d. 627). 

Byzantium had just reconquered its pres- 
tige, and its future seemed assured by the 
fall of the secular enemy and the restora- 
tion to the Empire of Syria, Palestine and 
Egypt. The Holy Cross, which had long 
ago been carried off, was now triumphantly 
restored to Constantinople by the con- 
queror. The sovereign of India sent his 
felicitations, and the king of the Franks, 
Dagobert, concluded a perpetual peace with 
him. After this it was natural to expect that 
Heraclius would continue the Occidental 
policy of Justinian. It was true that the 
Lombards had occupied a portion of Italy, 
and the Visigoths, in 624, recaptured from 
Byzantium its last outposts in Spain; but 
what was that compared with the tremen- 
dous recovery which had just been accom- 
plished in the Orient"? 

However, the effort, which was doubt- 
less excessive, had exhausted the Empire. 
The provinces which Persia had just sur- 
rendered were suddenly wrested from the 
Empire by Islam. Heraclius (610-641) 
was doomed to be a helpless spectator of 
the first onslaught of this new force which 
was about to disconcert and bewilder the 
Western world. 

The Arab conquest, which brought con- 
fusion upon both Europe and Asia, was 
without precedent. The swiftness of its 
victory is comparable only with that by 
which the Mongol Empires of Attila, 
Jenghiz Khan and Tamerlane were estab- 
lished. But these Empires were as ephem- 
eral as the conquest of Islam was lasting. 
This religion still has its faithful today in 
almost every country where it was imposed 
by the first Caliphs. The lightning-like ra- 
pidity of its diffusion was a veritable mira- 
cle as compared with the slow progress of 

By the side of this irruption, what were 
the conquests, so long delayed., of the Ger- 
mans, who, after centuries of effort, had 
succeeded only in nibbling at the edge of 

The Arabs, on the other hand, took pos- 



session of whole sections of the crumbling 
Empire. In 634 they seized the Byzantine 
fortress of Bothra (Bosra) in Transjordania; 
in 635 Damascus fell hefore them; in 636 
the battle of Yarmok gave them the whole 
of Syria; in 637 or 638 Jerusalem opened 
its gates to them, while at the same time 
their Asiatic conquests included Mesopo- 
tamia and Persia. Then it was the turn of 
Egypt to be attacked; and shortly after the 
death of Heraclius (641) Alexandria was 
taken, and before long the whole country 
was occupied. Next the invasion, still con- 
tinuing, submerged the Byzantine posses- 
sions in North Africa. 

All this may doubtless be explained by 
the fact that the invasion was unexpected, 

by the disorder of the Byzantine armies, 
disorganized and surprised by a new 
method of fighting, by the religious and 
national discontent of the Monophysites 
and Nestorians of Syria, to whom the Em- 
pire had refused to make any concessions, 
and of the Coptic Church of Egypt, and 
by the weakness of the Persians. But all 
these reasons are insufficient to explain so 
complete a triumph. The intensity of the 
results were out of all proportion to the 
numerical strength of the conquerors. . . . 2 

2 For further analysis of the Arab conquest the 
student is referred to the selections from Medieval 
Cities which summarize the more comprehensive 
treatment in Mohammed and Charlemagne. [Edi- 
tor's note] 



Many historians regard what they call 
the Prankish epoch as constituting an un- 
broken whole, so that they describe the 
Carolingian period as the continuation and 
development of the Merovingian. But in 
this they are obviously mistaken, and for 
several reasons. 

1st. The Merovingian period belongs to 
a milieu entirely different from that of the 
Carolingian period. In the 6th and 7th cen- 
turies there was still a Mediterranean with 
which the Merovingians were constantly in 
touch, and the Imperial tradition still sur- 
vived in many domains of life. 

2nd. The Germanic influence, confined 
to the vicinity of the Northern frontier, 
was very feeble, and made itself felt only 
in certain branches of the law and of 

3rd. Between the more glorious Mero- 
vingian period, which lasted until nearly 
the middle of the 7th century, and the 
Carolingian period, there was a full cen- 
tury of turbid decadence, in the course of 
which many of the features of the ancient 
civilizations disappeared, while others were 
further elaborated; and it was in this de- 

cadence that the Carolingian period had its 
origin. The ancestors of the Carolingians 
were not Merovingian kings, but the 
mayors of the palace. Charlemagne was 
not in any sense the successor of Dagobert, 3 
but of Charles Martel and Pippin. 

4th. We must not be confused by the 
identity of the name regnum Francomm. 
The new kingdom stretched as far as the 
Elbe and included part of Italy. It con- 
tained almost as many Germanic as Ro- 
manic populations. 

5th. Lastly, its relations with the Church 
were completely modified. The Merovin- 
gian State, like the Roman Empire, was 
secular. The Merovingian king was rex 
Francorum. The Carolingian king was Dei 
gratia rex Francormn, 4 and this little addi- 
tion indicates a profound transformation. 
So great was this transformation that later 
generations did not realize the significance 

3 Dagobert, Franldsh king, ca. 629-639, was the 
last of the Merovingians to rule as well as reign. 
[Editor's note] 

4 This had not yet become the regulation formula 
under Pippin, hut it was always employed from 
the beginning of Charlemagne's reign. Giry, 
Manuel de Diplomatique, p. 318. [Pirenne's note] 

From Mohammed and Charlemagne 


of the Merovingian usage. Later copyists 
and forgers embellished what seemed to 
them the inadmissible title of the Merovin- 
gian kings with a Dei gratia. 

Thus, the two monarchies the second 
of which, as I have endeavoured to show 
in these pages, was due in some sort to the 
submersion of the European world by 
Islam were far from being continuous, 
but were mutually opposed. 

In the great crisis which led to the col- 
lapse of the State founded by Clovis, the 
Roman foundations crumbled away to 

The first to go was the very conception 
of the royal power. This, of course, in the 
form which it assumed under the Merovin- 
gians, was not a mere transposition of the 
Imperial absolutism. I am quite willing to 
admit that the royal power was, to a great 
extent, merely a de facto despotism. Never- 
theless, for the king, as for his subjects, the 
whole power of the State was concentrated 
in the monarch. 

All that belonged to him was sacred; he 
could put himself above the law, and no 
one could gainsay him; he could blind his 
enemies and confiscate their estates under 
the pretext that they were guilty of Use- 
majeste. There was nothing, there was no 
one that he need consider. The power most 
resembling his own was that of the Byzan- 
tine Emperor, if we take into account the 
enormous differences due to the unequal 
levels of the two civilizations. 

All the Merovingian administrations pre- 
served, for good or ill, the bureaucratic 
character of the Roman administration. The 
Merovingian chancellery, with its lay refer- 
endars, was modelled upon that of Rome; 
the king picked his agents where he chose, 
even from among his slaves; his bodyguard 
of antrustions was reminiscent of the Pre- 
torian guard. And to tell the truth, the 
populations over whom he reigned had no 
conception of any other form of govern- 
ment. It was the government of all the 
kings of the period, Ostrogothic, Visigothic, 
Vandal. It should be noted that even when 
the kings assassinated one another the 

peoples did not revolt. Ambitious men com- 
mitted murder, but there were no popular 

The cause of the Merovingian decadence 
was the increasing weakness of the royal 
power. And this weakness, by which the 
Carolingians profited, was due to the dis- 
order of the financial administration, and 
this again was completely Roman. For, as 
we have seen, the king's treasury was nour- 
ished mainly by the impost. And with the 
disappearance of the gold currency, during 
the great crisis of the 8th century, this 
impost also disappeared. The very notion of 
the public impost was forgotten when the 
curiales of the cities disappeared. 

The monetarii who forwarded this im- 
post to the treasury in the form of gold 
solidi no longer existed. I think the last 
mention of them refers to the reign of 
Pippin. Thus the mayors of the palace no 
longer received the impost. The monarchy 
which they established by their coup d'etat 
was a monarchy in which the Roman con- 
ception of the public impost was abolished. 

The kings of the new dynasty, like the 
kings of the Middle Ages long after them, 
had no regular resources apart from the 
revenues of their domains. There were still 
prestations, of course, which dated from the 
Roman epoch, and in particular the tonlieu. 
But all these were diminishing. The droit 
de gite was exercised by the functionaries 
rather than by the king. 5 As for the tonlieu ? 
which brought in less and less as the circu- 
lation of goods diminished, the kings made 
donations of it to the abbeys and the grandi. 

Some writers have attempted to prove 
the existence of an impost under the Caro- 
lingians, As a matter of fact, there was a 
custom of annual "gifts" in the Germanic 
portion of the Empire. And, further, the 
kings decreed collections and levies of silver 
at the time of the Norman invasions. But 
these were expedients which were not con- 
tinued. In reality, it must be repeated, the 
basis of the king's financial power was his 

5 The tonlieu was a market toll; the droit de gtte 
was the feudal right of lodging. [Editor s note] 



domain, his fisc, if you will. To this, at 
least, in the case oF Charlemagne, we must 
add the booty taken in time of war. The 
ordinary basis of the royal power was purely 
rural. This was why the mayors of the 
palace confiscated so many ecclesiastical 
estates. The king was, and had to remain, 
if he was to maintain his power, the great- 
est landowner in the kingdom. No more 
surveys of lands, no more registers of taxes, 
no more financial functionaries; hence no 
more archives, no more offices, no more 
accounts. The kings no longer had any 
finances; this, it will be realized, was some- 
thing new. The Merovingian king bought 
or paid men with gold; the Carolingian 
king had to give them fragments of his 
domain. This was a serious cause of weak- 
ness, which was offset by booty as long 
as the country was at war under Charle- 
magne, but soon after his reign the conse- 
quences made themselves felt. And here, 
let it be repeated, there was a definite break 
with the financial tradition of the Romans, 

To this first essential difference between 
the Merovingians and the Carolingians an- 
other must be added. The new king, as we 
have seen, was king by the grace of God. 
The rite of consecration, introduced under 
Pippin, made him in some sort a sacerdotal 
personage. The Merovingian was in every 
sense a secular king. The Carolingian w r as 
crowned only by the intervention of the 
Church, and the king, by virtue of his con- 
secration, entered into the Church. He had 
now a religious ideal, and there were limits 
to his power the limits imposed by Chris- 
tian morality. We see that the kings no 
longer indulged in the arbitrary assassina- 
tions and the excesses of personal power 
which were everyday things in the Mero- 
vingian epoch. For proof we have only to 
read the De rectoribus Christianis of Se- 
dulius of Liege, or the De via regia of 
Smaragdus, written, according to Ebert, be- 
tween 806 and 813. 

Through the rite of consecration the 
Church obtained a hold over the king. 
Henceforth the secular character of the 
State was kept in the background. Here 

two texts of Hincmar 6 may be cited. "It is 
to the unction, an episcopal and a spiritual 
act," he wrote to Charles the Bald in 868; 
"it is to this benediction, far more than to 
your earthly power, that you owe the royal 
dignity." We read further, in the Acts of 
the Council of Sainte-Macre : "The dignity 
of the pontiffs is above that of the kings: 
for the kings are consecrated by the pon- 
tiffs, while the pontiffs cannot be conse- 
crated by the kings." After consecration 
the king owed certain duties to the Church. 
According to Smaragdus, he had to en- 
deavour with all his might to remedy any 
defects that had crept into it. But he had 
also to protect it and to see that the tithe 
was paid to it. 

It will be understood that under these 
conditions the monarchy acted in associa- 
tion with the Church. We have only to 
read the Capitularies to realize that these 
were as much concerned with ecclesiastical 
discipline and morality as with secular 

In the eyes of the Carolingian kings to 
administer their subjects meant to imbue 
them with ecclesiastical morality. We have 
already seen that their economic concep- 
tions were dominated by the Church. The 
bishops were their councillors and officials. 
The kings entrusted them with the func- 
tions of missi and filled their chancellery 
with clerics. Here is a striking contrast with 
the Merovingians, who rewarded their lay 
referendaries by making them bishops. 
From the time of Hitherius, the first eccle- 
siastic to enter the chancellery under Char- 
lemagne, no more laymen were employed 
there for centuries. Bresslau is mistaken in 
his belief that the invasion of the palace 
offices by the Church is explained by the 
fact that the first Carolingians wished to 
replace the Roman personnel of the Mero- 
vingians by an Austrasian personnel, and 
that they had to engage Austrasian clerics 
as being the only Austrasians who could 

6 Hincmar was a celebrated Archbishop of Rheims, 
845-882; Charles the Bald was the West Prankish 
King, 840-877. [Editor's note] 

From Mohammed and, Charlemagne 


read and write. No: they wanted to make 
sure of the collaboration of the Church. 

However, it is true that they had to seek 
men of education among the clerics. Dur- 
ing the crisis the education of laymen was 
discontinued. The mayors themselves were 
unable to write. The platonic efforts of 
Charlemagne to spread education among 
the people came to nothing, and the palace 
academy had only a few pupils. A period 
was commencing in which "cleric" and 
"scholar" were synonymous; hence the im- 
portance of the Church, which, in a king- 
dom where hardly anyone had retained any 
knowledge of Latin, was able for centuries 
to impose its language on the administra- 
tion. We have to make an effort to under- 
stand the true significance of this fact; it 
was tremendous. Here we perceive the ap- 
pearance of a new medieval characteristic: 
here was a religious caste which imposed 
its influence upon the State. 

And in addition to this religious caste, 
the king had to reckon with the military 
class, which comprised the whole of the lay 
aristocracy, and all such freemen as had 
remained independent. Of course, we have 
glimpses of the rise of this military class 
under the Merovingian kings. But the aris- 
tocracy of the Merovingian epoch was 
strangely unlike that of the Carolingian 
era. The great Roman landowners, the 
senatores, whether they resided in the cities 
or in the country, do not give one the im- 
pression that they were primarily soldiers. 
They were educated. Above all things, 
they sought employment in the palace or 
the Church. It is probable that the king 
recruited his army leaders and the soldiers 
of his bodyguard more particularly among 
his Germanic antrustions. It is certain that 
the landowning aristocracy lost no time in 
attempting to dominate him. But it never 
succeeded in doing so. 

We do not find that the king governed 
by means of this aristocracy, nor that he 
allowed it any share in the government as 
long as he remained powerful. And even 
though he conferred immunity upon it, he 
did not surrender either to the aristocracy 

or to the churches any of the rights of the 
crown. As a matter of fact, he had at his dis- 
posal two terrible weapons against it: prose- 
cution for lese-majeste and confiscation. 

But in order to hold his own against this 
aristocracy it is obvious that the king had 
to remain extremely powerful: in other 
words, extremely wealthy. For the aristoc- 
racy-like the Church, for that matter 
was constantly increasing its authority over 
the people. This social development, which 
began in the days of the late Empire, was 
continuing. The grandi had their private 
soldiers, numerous vassi who had recom- 
mended themselves to them (had applied 
to them for protection), and who consti- 
tuted a formidable following. 

In the Merovingian period the seigneu- 
rial authority of the landowners was mani- 
fested only within the limits of their pri- 
vate rights. But in the period of anarchy 
and decadence, when war broke out be- 
tween the mayors of the palace, who were 
backed by factions of aristocrats, the insti- 
tution of vassalage underwent a transforma- 
tion. It assumed an increasing importance, 
and its military character became plainly 
apparent when the Carolingian triumphed 
over his rivals. From the time of Charles 
Martel the power exercised by the king was 
essentially based on his military vassals in 
the North. 

He gave them benefices that is to say, 
estates in exchange for military service, 
and these estates he confiscated from the 
churches. "Now," says Guilhiermoz, 7 owing 
to their importance, these concessions to 
vassals were henceforth found to tempt, not 
only persons of mean or moderate condi- 
tion, but the great" . 

And this was entirely in the interest of 
the grantor, who henceforth gave large 
benefices "on the condition that the conces- 
sionaire served him, not only with his own 
person, but with a number of vassals in 
proportion to the importance of the bene- 
fice conceded," It was undoubtedly by such 

7 Guilhiermoz, Essa i sur les origines de la noblesse. 
p. 125. 


means that Charles Martel was able to re- 
cruit the powerful Austrasian following 
with which he went to war. And the sys- 
tem was continued after his time. 

In the 9th century the kings exacted an 
oath of vassalage from all the magnates of 
the kingdom, and even from the bishops. 
It became increasingly apparent that only 
those were truly submissive to the king who 
had paid homage to him. Thus the subject 
was disappearing behind the vassal, and 
Hincmar went so far as to warn Charles 
the Bald of the consequent danger to the 
royal authority. The necessity in which the 
first mayors of the palace found themselves, 
of providing themselves with loyal troops, 
consisting of sworn beneficiaries, led to a 
profound transformation of the State. For 
henceforth the king would be compelled to 
reckon with his vassals, w r ho constituted the 
military strength of the State. The organi- 
zation of the counties fell into disorder, 
since the vassals were not amenable to the 
jurisdiction of the count. In the field they 
commanded their own vassals themselves; 
the count led only the freemen to battle. It 
is possible that their domains were exempt 
from taxation. They were known as opti- 
mates regis. 

The chronicle of Moissac, in 813, called 
them senatus or majores natu Franco-rum, 
and together with the high ecclesiastics and 
the counts they did indeed form the king's 
council. The king, therefore, allowed them 
to partake of his political power. The State 
was becoming dependent on the contrac- 
tual bonds established between the king 
and his vassals. 

This was the beginning of the feudal 

All might still have been well if the king 
could have retained his vassals. But at the 
close of the 9th century, apart from those 
of his own domain, they had become sub- 
ject to the suzerainty of the counts. For as 
the royal power declined, from the time of 
the civil wars which marked the end of the 
reign of Louis the Pious, the counts became 
more and more independent. The only rela- 
tion which existed between them and the 

king was that of the vassal to his suzerain. 
They collected the regalia for the king; and 
sometimes they combined several counties 
into one. 8 The monarchy lost its adminis- 
trative character, becoming transformed 
into a Hoc of independent principalities, 
attached to the king by a bond of vassalage 
which he could no longer force his vassals 
to respect. The kings allowed the royal 
power to slip through their fingers. 

And it was inevitable that it should be 
so. We must not be misled by the prestige 
of Charlemagne. He was still able to rule 
the State by virtue of his military power, 
his wealth, which was derived from booty, 
and his de facto pre-eminence in the 
Church. These things enabled him to reign 
without systematic finances, and to exact 
obedience from functionaries who, being 
one and all great landowners, could very 
well have existed in independence. But 
what is the value of an administration 
which is no longer salaried? How can it be 
prevented from administering the country, 
if it chooses, for its own benefit, and not 
for the king's? Of what real use were such 
inspectors as the missi? Charles undoubt- 
edly intended to administer the kingdom, 
but was unable to do so. When we read the 
capitularies, we are struck by the difference 
between what they decreed and what was 
actually effected. Charles decreed that 
everyone should send his sons to school; 
that there should be only one mint; that 
usurious prices should be abolished in time 
of famine. He established maximum prices. 
But it was impossible to realize all these 
things, because to do so would have pre- 
supposed the obedience which could not 
be assured of the grandi, who were con- 
scious of their independence, or of the 
bishops, who, when Charlemagne was 
dead, proclaimed the superiority of the 
spiritual over the temporal power. 

The economic basis of the State did not 
correspond with the administrative charac- 
ter which Charlemagne had endeavoured 

8 In this connection the history of the formation 
of the county o Flanders is highly characteristic. 
[Pirenne's note] 

From Mohammed and Charlemagne 

to preserve. The economy of the State was 
based upon the great domain without com- 
mercial outlets. 

The landowners had no need of security, 
since they did not engage in commerce. 
Such a form of property is perfectly con- 
sistent with anarchy. Those who owned the 
soil had no need of the king. 

Was this why Charles had endeavoured 
to preserve the class of humble freemen^ 
He made the attempt, but he was unsuc- 
cessful. The great domain continued to ex- 
pand, and liberty to disappear. 

When the Normans began to invade the 
country, the State was already powerless. 
It was incapable of taking systematic meas- 
ures of defence, and of assembling armies 
which could have held their own against 
the invaders. There was no agreement be- 
tween the defenders. One may say with 
Hartmann: Heer und Staat warden durch 
die Grundherrschaft und das Lehnwesen 

What was left of the king's regalia he 
misused. He relinquished the tonlieu, and 
the right of the mint. Of its own accord the 
monarchy divested itself of its remaining 
inheritance, which was little enough. In 
the end, royalty became no more than a 
form. Its evolution was completed when 
in France, with Hugh Capet, it became 


As we have seen, the Germanic invasions 
had not the effect of abolishing Latin as 
the language of "Romania," except in 
those territories where Salic and Ripuarian 
Franks, Alamans, and Bavarians had estab- 
lished themselves en masse. Elsewhere the 
German immigrants became Romanized 
with surprising rapidity. 

The conquerors, dispersed about the 
country, and married to native wives who 
continued to speak their own language, all 
learned the Latin tongue. They did not 
modify it in any way, apart from introduc- 
ing a good many terms relating to law, the 
chase, war, and agriculture, which made 
their way southwards from the Belgian re- 

gions, where the Germans were numerous. 

Even more rapid was the Romanization 

of the Burgundi, Visigoths. Ostrogoths, 

o ' o 7 o 

Vandals and Lombards. According to 
Gamillscheg, nothing was left of the Gothic 
language when the Moors conquered Spain 
but the names of persons and places. 

On the other hand, the confusion into 
which the Mediterranean world was 
thrownjby the invasion of Islam resulted in 
a profound transformation where language 
was concerned. In Africa Latin was re- 
placed by Arabic. In Spain, on the other 
hand, it survived, but was deprived of its 
foundations: there were no more schools 
or monasteries, and there was no longer 
an educated clergy. The conquered people 
made use of a Roman patois which was not 
a written language. Latin, which had sur- 
vived so successfully in the Peninsula until 
the eve of the conquest, disappeared; 
people were beginning to speak Spanish. 

In Italy, on the other hand, it resisted 
more successfully; and a few isolated 
schools survived in Rome and Milan. 

But it is in Gaul that we can best observe 
the extent of the confusion, and its causes. 

The Latin of the Merovingian epoch 
was, of course, barbarously incorrect; but 
it was still a living Latin. It seems that it 
was even taught in the schools where a 
practical education was given, while here 
and there the bishops and senators still read 
and sometimes even tried to write the 
classic Latin. 

The Merovingian Latin was by no means 
a vulgar language. It showed few signs of 
Germanic influence. Those who spoke it 
could make themselves understood, and un- 
derstand others, in any part of "Romania/* 
It was perhaps more incorrect in the North 
of France than elsewhere, but nevertheless, 
it was a spoken and written language. The 
Church did not hesitate to employ it for the 
purposes of propaganda, administration,, 
and justice. 

This language was taught in the schools. 
Laymen learned and wrote it. Its relation 
to the Latin of the Empire was like that of 
the cursive in which it was written to the 


writing of the Roman epoch. And since it 
was still written and extensively employed 
for the purposes of administration and 
commerce, it became stabilized. 

But it was destined to disappear in the 
course of the great disorders of the 8th cen- 
tury. The political anarchy, the reorganiza- 
tion of the Church, the disappearance of 
the cities and of commerce and administra- 
tion, especially the financial administration, 
and of the secular schools, made its sur- 
vival, with its Latin soul, impossible. It be- 
came debased, and was transformed, accord- 
ing to the region, into various Romanic 
dialects. The details of the process are lost, 
but it is certain that Latin ceased to be 
spoken about the year 800, except by the 

Now, it was precisely at this moment, 
when Latin ceased to be a living language, 
and was replaced by the rustic idioms from 
which the national languages are derived, 
that it became what it was to remain 
through the centuries: a learned language: 
a novel mediaeval feature which dates from 
the Carolingian epoch. 

It is curious to note that the origin of this 
phenomenon must be sought in the only 
Romanic country in which the Germanic 
invasion had completely extirpated Roman- 
ism: in Britain, among the Anglo-Saxons. 

The conversion of this country was or- 
ganized, as we have seen, on the shores of 
the Mediterranean, and not in the neigh- 
bouring country of Gaul. It was the monks 
of Augustine, despatched by Gregory the 
Great in 596, who promoted the movement 
already commenced by the Celtic monks 
of Ireland. 

In the 7th century Saint Theodore of 
Tarsus and his companion Adrian enriched 
the religion which they brought with them 
by the Graeco-Roman traditions. A new 
culture immediately began to evolve in the 
island, a fact which Dawson rightly con- 
siders "the most important event which oc- 
curred between the epoch of Justinian and 
that of Charlemagne." Among these purely 
Germanic Anglo-Saxons the Latin culture 
was introduced suddenly, together with 

the Latin religion, and it profited by the 
enthusiasm felt for the latter. No sooner 
were they converted, under the influence 
and guidance of Rome, than the Anglo- 
Saxons turned their gaze toward the Sacred 
City. They visited it continually, bringing 
back relics and manuscripts. They sub- 
mitted themselves to its suggestive influ- 
ence, and learned its language, which for 
them was no vulgar tongue, but a sacred 
language, invested with an incomparable 
prestige. As early as the 7th century there 
were men among the Anglo-Saxons, like 
the Venerable Bede and the poet Aldhelm, 
whose learning was truly astonishing as 
measured by the standards of Western 

The intellectual reawakening which took 
place under Charlemagne must be attrib- 
uted to the Anglo-Saxon missionaries. Be- 
fore them, of course, there were the Irish 
monks, including the greatest of all, Saint 
Columban, the founder of Luxeuil and 
Bobbio, who landed in Gaul about 590. 
They preached asceticism in a time of 
religious decadence, but we do not find 
that they exercised the slightest literary 

It was quite otherwise with the Anglo- 
Saxons; their purpose was to propagate 
Christianity in Germany, a country for 
which the Merovingian Church had done 
little or nothing. And this purpose coin- 
cided with the policy of the Carolingians; 
hence the enormous influence of Boniface, 
the organizer of the Germanic Church, 
and, by virtue of this fact, the intermediary 
between the Pope and Pippin the Short. 

Charlemagne devoted himself to the task 
of literary revival simultaneously with that 
of the restoration of the Church. The prin- 
cipal representative of Anglo-Saxon cul- 
ture, Alcuin, the head of the school of 
York, entered Charlemagne's service in 
782, as director of the palace school, and 
henceforth exercised a decisive influence 
over the literary movement of the time. 

Thus, by the most curious reversal of 
affairs, which affords the most striking proof 
of the rupture effected by Islam, the North 

From Mohammed and Charlemagne 

in Europe replaced the South both as a 
literary and as a political centre. 

It was the North that now proceeded to 
diffuse the culture which it had received 
from the Mediterranean. Latin, which had 
been a living language on the further side 
of the Channel, was for the Anglo-Saxons, 
from the beginning, merely the language of 
the Church. The Latin which was taught 
to the Anglo-Saxons was not the incorrect 
business and administrative language, 
adapted to the needs of secular life, but the 
language which was still spoken in the 
Mediterranean schools. Theodore came 
from Tarsus in Cilicia, and had studied at 
Athens before coming to Rome. Adrian, 
an African by birth, was the abbot of a 
monastery near Naples, and was equally 
learned in Greek and in Latin. 

It was the classic tradition that they 
propagated among their neophytes, and a 
correct Latin, which had no need, as on the 
continent, to make concessions to common 
usage in order to be understood, since the 
people did not speak Latin, but Anglo- 
Saxon. Thus, the English monasteries re- 
ceived the heritage of the ancient culture 
without intermediary. It was the same in 
the 15th century, when the Byzantine 
scholars brought to Italy, not the vulgar 
Greek, the living language of the street, 
but the classical Greek of the schools. 

In this way the Anglo-Saxons became 
simultaneously the reformers of the lan- 
guage and also the reformers of the 
Church. The barbarism into which the 
Church had lapsed was manifested at once 
by its bad morals, its bad Latin, its bad 
singing, and its bad writing. To reform it 
at all meant to reform all these things. 
Hence questions of grammar and of writ- 
ing immediately assumed all the signifi- 
cance of an apostolate. Purity of dogma 
and purity of language went together. Like 
the Anglo-Saxons, who had immediately 
adopted it, the Roman rite made its way 
into all parts of the Empire, together with 
the Latin culture. This latter was the in- 
strument far excellence of what is known 
as the Carolingian Renaissance, although 

this had other agents in such men as Paulus 
Diaconus, Peter of Pisa, and Theodulf. 9 
But it is important to note that this Renais- 
sance was purely clerical. It did not affect 
the people, who had no understanding of 
it. It was at once a revival of the antique 
tradition and a break with the Roman tra- 
dition, which was interrupted by the seiz- 
ure of the Mediterranean regions by Islam. 
The lay society of the period, being purely 
agricultural and military, no longer made 
use of Latin. This was now merely the 
language of the priestly caste, which mo- 
nopolized all learning, and which was con- 
stantly becoming more divorced from the 
people whose divinely appointed guide it 
considered itself. For centuries there had 
been no learning save in the Church. The 
consequence was that learning and intel- 
lectual culture, while they became more 
assertive, were also becoming more excep- 
tional. The Carolingian Renaissance coin- 
cided with the general illiteracy of the laity. 
Under the Merovingians laymen were still 
able to read and write; but not so under the 
Carolingians. The sovereign who instigated 
and supported this movement, Charle- 
magne, could not write; nor could his 
father, Pippin the Short, We must not at- 
tach any real importance to his ineffectual 
attempts to bestow this culture upon his 
court and his family. To please him, a few 
courtiers learnt Latin. Men like Eginhard, 
Nithard and Angilbert 10 were passing lumi- 
naries. Generally speaking, the immense 
majority of the lay aristocracy were un- 
affected by a movement which interested 

9 Paulus Diaconus (Paul the Deacon) wrote the 
very important History of the Lombards; Peter o 
Pisa was a grammarian first at Pavia and then at 
the Palace School at Aachen; THeodulf was a 
Spanish Goth who became Bishop of Orleans and 
is recognized as the best poet of the "Carolingian 
Renaissance." All were contemporaries of Charle- 
magne. [Editor's note] 

10 Angilbert, d. 814, was a poet and probably one 
of the authors of tie "Royal Annals" of Charle- 
magne's period, drawn up in the monastery at 
Lorscn. Nithard was a son of Angilbert and a 
grandson of Charlemagne, who wrote several his- 
tories of trie first naif of the ninth century; these 
contain the famous OatL. of Strasbourg (842) in 
both French and German. [Editor's note] 



only those of its members who wished to 
make a career in the Church. 

In the Merovingian epoch the royal ad- 
ministration called for a certain culture on 
the part of those laymen who wished to 
enter it. But now, in so far as it still re- 
quired literate recruits as it did 7 for ex- 
ample, for the chancellery it obtained 
them from the Church. For the rest, since 
it no longer had a bureaucracy, it had no 
further need of men of education. The 
immense majority of the counts were no 
doubt illiterate. The type of the Merovin- 
gian senator had disappeared. The aristoc- 
racy no longer spoke Latin, and apart from 
a very few exceptions, which prove the rule, 
it could neither read nor write. 

A final characteristic of the Carolingian 
Renaissance was the reformed handwriting 
which was introduced at this period. This 
reform consisted in the substitution of the 
minuscule for the cursive script: that is to 
say, a deliberate calligraphy for a current 
hand. As long as the Roman tradition sur- 
vived, the Roman cursive was written by 
all the peoples of the Mediterranean basin. 
It w 7 as, in a certain sense, a business hand, 
or, at all events, the writing of a period 
when writing was an everyday necessity. 
And the diffusion of papyrus was simul- 
taneous with this constant need of corre- 
sponding and recording. The great crisis of 
the 8th century inevitably restricted the 
practice of writing. It was hardly required 
any longer except for making copies of 
books. Now, for this purpose the majuscule 
and the uncial were employed. These 
scripts were introduced into Ireland when 
the country was converted to Christianity. 
And in Ireland, not later than the close of 
the 7th century, the uncial (semi-uncial) 
gave rise to the minuscule, which was al- 
ready employed in the antiphonary of 
Bangor (680-690). The Anglo-Saxons'took 
these manuscripts, together with those 
which were brought by the missionaries de- 
riving from Rome, as their example and 
pattern. It was from the insular minuscule 
and the Roman scriptoria, in which the 
semi-uncial was much employed, that the 

perfected or Caroline minuscule was de- 
rived at the beginning of the 9th century. 

The first dated example of this minus- 
cule is found in the evangelary written by 
Godescalc in 781, at the request of Charle- 
magne, who was himself unable to write. 
Alcuin made the monastery of Tours a cen- 
tre of diffusion for this new writing, which 
was to determine the whole subsequent 
graphological evolution of the Middle Ages. 

A number of monasteries, which might 
be compared to the printing-offices of the 
Renaissance, provided for the increasing 
demand for books and the diffusion of these 
new characters. In addition to Tours, there 
were Corbie, Orleans, Saint Denis, Saint 
Wandrille, Fulda, Corvey, Saint Gall, 
Reichenau, and Lorsch. In most of them, 
and above all in Fulda, there were Anglo- 
Saxon monks. It will be noted that nearly 
all these monasteries were situated in the 
North, between the Seine and the Weser. 
It was in this region, of which the original 
Carolingian domains formed the centre, 
that the new ecclesiastical culture, or, shall 
we say, the Carolingian Renaissance, at- 
tained its greatest efflorescence. 

Thus we observe the same phenomenon 
in every domain of life. The culture which 
had hitherto flourished in the Mediter- 
ranean countries had migrated to the 
North. It was in the North that the civili- 
zation of the Middle Ages was elaborated. 
And it is a striking fact that the majority of 
the writers of this period were of Irish, 
Anglo-Saxon or Prankish origin: that is, 
they came from regions which lay to the 
north of the Seine. . . . 

Thus we see that Germany, being con- 
verted, immediately began to play an essen- 
tial part in the civilization to which she 
had hitherto been a stranger. The culture 
which had been entirely Roman was now 
becoming Romano-Germanic, but if truth 
be told it was localized in the bosom of the 

Nevertheless, it is evident that a new 
orientation was unconsciously effected in 
Europe, and that in this development Ger- 
manism collaborated. Charlemagne's court, 

From Mohammed and Charlemagne 


and Charlemagne himself, were certainly 
much less Latinized than were the Mero- 
vingians. Under the new dispensation 
many functionaries were recruited from 
Germany, and Austrasian vassals were set- 
tled in the South. Charlemagne's wives 
were all German women. Certain judicial 
reforms, such as that of the sheriffs, had 
their origin in the regions which gave birth 
to the dynasty. Under Pippin the clergy 
became Germanized and under Charle- 
magne there were many German bishops in 
Romanic regions. Angelelmus and Heri- 
bald, at Auxerre, were both Bavarians; 
Bern old, at Strasbourg, was a Saxon; at 
Mans there were three Westphalians in 
succession; Hilduin, at Verdun, was a 
German; Herulfus and Ariolfus, at Lan- 
gres, came from Augsburg; Wulferius, at 
Vienne, and Leidrad, at Lyons, were Bava- 
rians. And I do not think there is any evi- 
dence of a contrary migration. To appreci- 
ate the difference we have only to compare 
Chilperic, 11 a Latin poet, with Charle- 
magne, at whose instance a collection was 
made of the ancient Germanic songs! 

All this was bound to result in a break 
with the Roman and Mediterranean tradi- 
tions. And while it made the West more 
and more self-sufficing, it produced an aris- 
tocracy of mixed descent and inheritance. 
Was it not then that many terms found 

11 Chilperic was King of the Franks, 561-584. 
[Editor's note] 

their way into the vocabulary to which an 
earlier origin has often been attributed? 
There were no longer any Barbarians. 
There was one great Christian community, 
coterminous with the ecclesia. This ecclesia, 
of course, looked toward Rome, but Rome 
had broken away from Byzantium and was 
bound to look toward the North. The Occi- 
dent was now living its own life. It was 
preparing to unfold its possibilities, its vir- 
tualities, taking no orders from the outer 
world, except in the matter of religion. 

There was now a community of civiliza- 
tion, of which the Carolingian Empire was 
the symbol and the instrument. For while 
the Germanic element collaborated in this 
civilization, it was a Germanic element 
which had been Romanized by the Church. 
There were, of course, differences within 
this community. The Empire would be dis- 
membered, but each of its portions would 
survive, since the feudality would respect 
the monarchy. In short, the culture which 
was to be that of the period extending from 
the early Middle Ages to the Renaissance 
of the 12th century and this was a true 
renaissance bore, and would continue to 
bear, the Carolingian imprint. There was 
an end of political unity, but an interna- 
tional unity of culture survived. Just as the 
States founded in the West in the 5th cen- 
tury by the Barbarian kings retained the 
Roman imprint, so France, Germany, and 
Italy retained the Carolingian imprint. 


From the foregoing data, it seems, we 
may draw two essential conclusions: 

1. The Germanic invasions destroyed 
neither the Mediterranean unity of the an- 
cient world, nor what may be regarded as 
the truly essential features of the Roman 
culture as it still existed in the 5th century, 
at a time when there was no longer an 
Emperor in the West. 

Despite the resulting turmoil and de- 
struction, no new principles made their 

appearance; neither in the economic or 
social order, nor in the linguistic situation, 
nor in the existing institutions. What civili- 
zation survived was Mediterranean. It was 
in the regions by the sea that culture was 
preserved, and it was from them that the 
innovations of the age proceeded: monasti- 
cism, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, 
the ars Barbarica, etc. 

The Orient was the fertilizing factor: 
Constantinople, the centre of the world. In 



600 the physiognomy of the world was not 
different in quality from that which it had 
revealed in 400. 

2. The cause of the break with the tra- 
dition of antiquity was the rapid and un- 
expected advance of Islam. The result of 
this advance was the final separation of 
East from West, and the end of the Medi- 
terranean unity. Countries like Africa and 
Spain, which had always been parts of the 
Western community, gravitated henceforth 
in the orbit of Baghdad. In these countries 
another religion made its appearance, and 
an entirely different culture. The Western 
Mediterranean, having become a Musul- 
man lake, was no longer the thoroughfare 
of commerce and of thought which it had 
always been. 

The West was blockaded and forced to 
live upon its own resources. For the first 
time in history the axis of life was shifted 
northwards from the Mediterranean. The 
decadence into which the Merovingian 
monarchy lapsed as a result of this change 
gave birth to a new dynasty, the Carolin- 
gian, w r hose original home was in the Ger- 
manic North. 

With this new dynasty the Pope allied 
himself, breaking with the Emperor, who, 
engrossed in his struggle against the Musul- 

mans, could no longer protect him. And 
so the Church allied itself with the new 
order of things. In Rome, and in the Em- 
pire which it founded, it had no rival. And 
its power was all the greater inasmuch as 
the State, being incapable of maintaining 
its administration, allowed itself to be ab- 
sorbed by the feudality, the inevitable se- 
quel of the economic regression. All the 
consequences of this change became glar- 
ingly apparent after Charlemagne. Europe, 
dominated by the Church and the feudal- 
ity, assumed a new physiognomy, differing 
slightly in different regions. The Middle 
Ages to retain the traditional term were 
beginning. The transitional phase was pro- 
tracted. One may say that it lasted a whole 
century from 650 to 750. It was during 
this period of anarchy that the tradition of 
antiquity disappeared, while the new ele- 
ments came to the surface. 

This development was completed in 800 
by the constitution of the new Empire, 
which consecrated the break between the 
West and the East, inasmuch as it gave to 
the West a new Roman Empire the mani- 
fest proof that it had broken with the old 
Empire, which continued to exist in 



Jean Francois Lestocquoy (1903- ), a French medievalist, has been 
associated since 1931 with the institution of Saint-Joseph of Arras and 
has been active in various historical societies of the department of Pas- 
de-Calais. Lestocquoy is now recognized as the chief authority on the 
history of this region, which, in the early Middle Ages, became a posses- 
sion of the Count of Flanders and then, as now, had special importance 
by reason of its strategic situation near the English Channel. 

E BIRTH of a civilization, the changes 
in ideas and outward forms, maybe in 
the very appearance of the country, which 
such an event involves, must always be of 
the deepest interest to historians. Hence 
the general preoccupation with that obscure 
period, which, for good or ill, has been 
termed the Dark Ages. Where are the 
origins of medieval civilization to be found"? 
The theory that first held the field looked 
for its answers to Rome: certain elements 
of Roman civilization had always survived, 
particularly in the organization of the 
towns. Then there was a reaction, and the 
Roman theory was rejected, in a manner 
perhaps too sweeping. With the single 
reservation that in Italy alone some mem- 
ories of Roman civilization might have 
survived, all was attributed to the Germans, 
the true founders of medieval civilization. 
Both theories are open to the same criti- 
cism, that they view the problem too 
exclusively from the juridical point of view. 
Life is not so simple as lawyers would make 
it, and juridical concepts alone cannot 
provide an explanation of medieval civiliza- 
tion. Neither Rome nor the barabarians are 

enough; the origins of medieval civilization 
are to be sought in the development of the 
peoples themselves. 

The view which is at present the most 
widely accepted is that of Henri Pirenne. 
According to him, medieval civilization 
began to take shape at the end of the tenth 
century after the Viking and Hungarian 
invasions had ceased. The end of the 
ancient world had come much earlier. The 
triumph of Islam shattered the unity of 
the Mediterranean and severed those rela- 
tions with the east and with ancient civili- 
zation which had still been maintained 
under the Merovingians. There had then 
been a sudden breach with the past, and 
the Carolingian period was one of full 
decline. Charlemagne was thrown back on 
the resources of northern Europe, and life 
became self-centred as never before. Civili- 
zation became completely rural, with the 
great domain as its normal expression. 
Towns, or at least towns worthy of the 
name, no longer existed, and merchants 
sank to the level of common pedlars. This 
retrogression of economic life was accentu- 
ated by the Viking invasions. Only at the 

From J. Lestocquoy, "The Tenth Century," The Economic History Review, XVII (No. 1, 1947), 
pp. 1-6. By permission of the author and The Economic History Review. 




very end of the tenth century did Europe 
begin to revive, and then under influences 
coming from the east by way of Venice. 
A merchant class came into being and gave 
importance to the towns, gradually replac- 
ing the pedlars and Jews who for three 
centuries had maintained such little com- 
merce as had continued to exist. At first 
these merchants were wanderers without 
any permanent home, adventurers thrown 
up by the surplus population of the country- 
side. It was only gradually that they settled 
down. Towns came into existence in spots 
favoured by nature, either at natural har- 
bours or at points inland where rivers ceased 
to be navigable. In these settlements mer- 
chants were all-important and were able to 
create for themselves their own law, the 
jus mercatorum. 

The theory is attractive enough, and the 
last part of it at least has been generally 
admitted. But the first part has been widely 
questioned. Many historians have refused 
to admit that the growth of Islam was so 
decisive a factor in the development of 
Europe. The studies of M. Sabbe on the 
commerce in precious stuffs appeared to 
show that the Mediterranean trade was 
interrupted less completely than Pirenne 
had thought. It was even possible to argue 
that the Carolingian period saw an advance 
in commerce and not a decline. F. L. 
Ganshof showed that there was still some 
commerce in the ports of Provence between 
the eighth and the tenth centuries. 1 R. S. 
Lopez, looking at the question from the 
point of view of the east, sought to explain 
the decline by the weakening of the rela- 
tions with Constantinople: a process which 
was chronologically independent of the 
expansion of Islam. 

Would it not therefore be right to admit 
that although the career of Mohammed 
must have had a considerable influence on 
developments in Europe it was less decisive 
and less easy to define than Pirenne 
believed? Nor was there a sharp contrast 

1 Sabbe and Ganshof are Belgian historians. [Edi- 
tor's note] 

between the Merovingian and Carolingian 
periods. In the ninth century there must 
have been still professional merchants and 
a certain amount of commerce. In the 
northern regions of the Prankish empire 
economic life may even have continued to 
progress when the invasions, Norman first 
and Hungarian afterwards, took place. 

With the invasions the problem of con- 
tinuity comes up again. Was there really a 
sharp break between the period preceding 
the invasions and that which followed 
them"? Must one regard the development 
of towns in the eleventh century as a kind 
of spontaneous generation: 5 For such is in 
fact the theory of Pirenne. For him the 
towns were something entirely new; their 
inhabitants were adventurers coming from 
places unknown, a surplus population of a 
countryside which was increasing in num- 
bers at a prodigious rate. Thus from a class 
of ruthless men there sprang that merchant 
class, which was in time to give birth to 
the urban patriciate and to impart to the 
towns of the Middle Ages their peculiar 


These questions could only be answered 
by a more elaborate study of tenth-century 
conditions than is possible in this short 
essay. Such a study would have to include 
not only Flanders, where documentary evi- 
dence, save for the south, is very scanty, but 
also Germany and Italy. For there is still 
another question that one must ask, and 
that is, whether the development of these 
regions was independent or interconnected? 
Were their towns and merchants unique 
specimens, or did they form part of a western 
whole"? My own feeling is that these regions 
were only at slightly different stages of 
development, and that the less fortunate of 
the newest regions, such as Flanders, were 
constantly tending to catch up with the 
social development of those regions which 
were more advanced. One has the impres- 
sion that the government of towns by the 
bourgeoisie was a kind of norm in the 
Middle Ages. It was the goal to which 

Origins of Medieval Civilization and the Problem of Continuity 


everything was tending, although the point 
of departure in different regions might not 
always be the same. 

The lines of demarcation between region 
and region were never sharp. Above all, 
the merchant 'bourgeoisie, without being 
vagrant, was extremely well-travelled and 
far from ignorant about affairs of other 
countries, however distant. Guilland, in his 
lectures at the Sorbonne in 1940, called 
attention to the remarkable similarities be- 
tween the organization of the silk industry 
at Constantinople and that of the cloth 
industry at Florence and Douai in the tenth 
and eleventh centuries, and that of England 
in the later centuries. This influence must 
have been disseminated by the famous 
Livre du Prefet. In the realm of art the 
eastern derivation of Romanesque is gener- 
ally admitted; why should similar influences 
have been absent from the field of ideas 
and social organization? 

The literature on the origins of our civili- 
zation will reveal to what a surprising extent 
the fog of silence envelops the tenth cen- 
tury. It almost seems as if we must renounce 
all hope of ever knowing all that happened 
during that period. Apart from a few illu- 
minated manuscripts, it has left little behind 
in the way of works of art, and this lacuna 
is the more significant in view of the 
brilliant achievements of the Carolingian 
period and the amazing triumphs of the 
eleventh century, "le siecle des grandes 
experiences," as Focillon 2 has called it. Nor 
did this period produce anything of impor- 
tance in the way of literature. Its most 
valuable writer was Flodoard: what could 
we have done without him? Yet for him, 
as for most of his contemporaries, annals 
and history were interchangeable terms. He 
lines up his facts in the most precise fashion, 
so to speak, end to end, without bothering 
about their interrelations. Compared to 
Einhard in the ninth century and Raoul 
Glaber in the eleventh century, Flodoard 

2 Henri Focillon, French historian, was the author 
of an important book, L'an mil (The Year One 
Thousand'), Paris, 1952. [Editor's note] 

is not a historian. 3 Einhard and Raoul 
Glaber do not merely relate the succession 
of events; they give form to their material 
and try to interpret it, they give us their 
own views, in short. Flodoard, on the other 
hand, describes a mere succession of inde- 
pendent events. His precision is something 
we must be grateful for; but his want of 
ideas betrays the decadence of his age. 

At the same time the production of annals 
was entirely suited to the period. Men were 
compelled to live in the present, as Lot has 
observed. 4 The students of the history of 
the early Middle Ages, and of the tenth 
century in particular, will be struck by the 
total absence of political ideas, of clear-cut 
intellectual schemes, of all notion of con- 
tinuity. We cannot attribute political or 
economic aims to the rulers of the period 
without committing a grave anachronism. 
In the sparsely populated regions of the 
north, the only object of policy seems to 
have been that of territorial conquest, which 
is surely not a sign of mature political 
thought. To a historian in search of political 
ideas or economic policies, nothing can be 
more disconcerting than the general history 
of the period: a mere record of petty per- 
sonal rivalries. France was a prey to con- 
stant civil war, and although Count Arnulf 
succeeded in building up a strong power in 
Flanders in the middle of the tenth century, 
his death was followed by a relapse into 
anarchy. Germany under the Saxon em- 
perors alone gives the impression of any 
real political organization. 

Why this should have been so is easy to 
understand, for the state of insecurity pre- 
vailed over the greater part of Europe. One 
is tempted to forget how long the scourge 

3 Einhard (ca. 770-840) was associated with the 
palace school at Aachen and was the author of a 
celebrated Life of Charlemagne. Raoul Glaher 
(ca. 1000-1050) was a Benedictine chronicler at 
St. Germain d Auxerre and wrote a kind o history 
of the world, from 900 to 1045. Flodoard (10th 
century) wrote a history of the church of Kheims, 
valuable mainly for the documents included. [Edi- 
tor's note] 

4 Ferdinand Lot, Les demiers carolingiens (Paris, 
1891), p. 168. 



of the invasions continued, and to assume 
that those of the Northmen ceased in 883 
and were followed by a period of peace. 
But, if we merely turn over the pages of 
Flodoard, we can easily see what an illusion 
this is. The Normans occupied Brittany in 
921. The Hungarians devastated Italy in 
922 and sacked Pavia, one of the most 
important towns in Europe, in 924. During 
the same years the Normans continued their 
devastations in Aquitaine and Auvergne. 
In 925 they invaded the valley of the 
Somme and advanced as far as Noyon. In 
the single year 926, King Robert of France 
defeated the Normans at Fauquembergue 
in Artois, there was a Norman invasion of 
the valley of Loire, and there were two 
Hungarian invasions. The very rumour of 
the approach of the Hungarians was suffi- 
cient to cause a general flight of the country- 
folk with their relics to the shelter of the 
towns. The terrible raids of the Hungarians 
were continued in 933 and 935, and on a 
vaster scale in 955. In Italy after a devasta- 
tion by Berengar in 962 somewhat more 
peaceful conditions returned, but even then 
the peace was only a comparative one. 
Bands of Saracens watched over the Alpine 
passes, where until 973 or 983 they blocked 
the route and killed travellers or held them 
to ransom, thus impeding communications 
between Italy and the rest of Europe. How 
could trade survive under such conditions? 
More especially, how could it proceed in 
lands where Norman raids appear to have 
reduced the towns to petty insignificance? 
Besides the circumstances, the men them- 
selves must be taken into account. We 
know that the economy of the period was 
mainly rural, but unfortunately we know 
almost nothing about the rural life of the 
period. This is the more unfortunate since 
the intense local urban life, which charac- 
terized the later Middle Ages and lasted 
until the appearance of powerful and cen- 
tralized states with capital cities had reduced 
other towns to positions of secondary impor- 
tance, was not yet born. In the tenth cen- 
tury the countryside and the manor took 
precedence over the towns a circumstance 

which differentiates most sharply the west 
from the east. 

There is, however, one characteristic of 
the period that must be emphasized, for it 
is not always immediately apparent in the 
texts, and only becomes apparent if viewed 
in the perspective of centuries. This is the 
remarkable weakness, the minute scale, of 
all things. Let us take for example the 
towns and military operations as measured 
by the scale of the fortified places. We find 
that Montreuil-sur-Mer (which recent 
studies have shown to have had an unex- 
pected importance in the Middle Ages) 
was constantly an object of dispute between 
Flanders and Normandy. But the frag- 
ments of the town wall, now surviving in 
private gardens, can still be seen, and its 
towers are so small that they make one 
think of children's games rather than of 
military 7 operations. Similarly, Senlis suc- 
cessfully resisted capture by Louis d'Ou- 
tremer and Otto I in 946, and the texts refer 
to the strength of its walls. . . . But these 
were Roman walls which had already 
existed for six centuries. Amiens had also 
retained its Roman walls. When in 950, 
Arnulf of Flanders was at war with Herbert 
of Vermandois, the latter took possession of 
a tower already occupied by the Bishop 
of Amiens, so that each of the two belliger- 
ents was installed in a tower, each serving 
as a diminutive fortress. There is something 
almost comic about a war on this scale. 
Laon, which was captured in 949 only by a 
stratagem, was scarcely more redoubtable. 
All this indicates that the armies were 
feeble, the towns petty; certainly a place of 
several thousand inhabitants would take 
rank as a great city. And even so, great 
towns of this kind were mostly to be found 
north of the Seine, in that part of France 
which still retained some vitality. What do 
we know of the future great cities of the 
Middle Ages; of Florence, Siena, Pisa and 
Lucca? These were all little townships, too 
small to be mentioned. The same is true of 
Ghent and St-Omer; the silence of our 
authorities is not pure accident. Almost the 
only places mentioned in those regions 

Origins of Medieval Civilization and the Problem of Continuity 


which were to be the scene of intense 
economic activity in the eleventh century 
are Rheims, Arras and Verdun in France, 
and Pavia, Milan and Venice in Italy. 

Indeed it is possible to develop this theme 
further and to argue that urban life in the 
west had been reduced to the minimum. 
This has in fact often been done, and 
Pirenne makes it one of the main bases of 
his argument. Whatever view we take, it is 

certain that in this respect the west was 
sharply differentiated from the east. The 
west has nothing comparable to a city like 
Constantinople. We need not perhaps give 
credence to the tale that Constantinople had 
a population of a million and Thessalonica 
of five hundred thousand, but there can be 
no doubt that the cities were on a scale no 
longer known in Europe. . . . 


H. ST. L. B. MOSS 

Henry St. Lawrence Beaufort Moss has been associated in historical 
writing with Professor Norman H. Baynes. In Britain they have greatly 
opened up the study of Byzantine history. Among Mr. Moss 1 publications 
is an excellent text, The Birth of the Middle Ages, 395-814. The selection 
which follows reprints in its entirety an article by Mr. Moss in a series on 
"Revisions In Economic History," In the British journal, The Economic 
History Review. Mr. Moss wrote this article in 1937 as a summary of 
historical investigation at that time. For his extensive documentation the 
student is referred to the original article. 

DURING the past generation a sub- 
stantial literature has accumulated 
round one of the central problems of 
European history 7 the transition from the 
ancient world to medieval civilisation. By 
the end of the nineteenth century what 
may be called the "catastrophic" view had 
been definitely abandoned. Since then the 
complexity of the change has become 
steadily more apparent. How distant any 
general agreement still is, even on its main 
features, was shown by the debates of the 
Historical Congress at Oslo in 1928; and 
detailed re-examination of its many aspects 
proceeds unceasingly in a score of periodi- 
cals and a steady flow of monographs. A 
cursory and superficial survey of some of 
the principal points of controversy is all 
that will be attempted in the following 

The economic approach to history is a 
comparatively recent development. Ancient 
and medieval writers were seldom directly 
concerned wdth the subject, and not till the 
last century did it emerge as a definite 

subdivision of historiography. A revaluation 
of many historical judgments followed, 
based on a fresh sifting of the sources. 
But an important obstacle to the new 
studies, so far as the "dark ages" are con- 
cerned, soon made its appearance. Deficient 
in general as the sources for these centuries 
are, nowhere is their poverty more thread- 
bare than in the economic data which they 
provide. Scanty references, often of purely 
local application, in the writings of annal- 
ists, orators, monkish chroniclers or theo- 
logians must be collected, interpreted, and 
assessed in the light of a background which 
is often only too obscure, before any general 
picture can be formed. Population statistics, 
estimates of money- values, even, in many 
cases, identification of place-names these, 
and much else, are highly problematical. 
Epigraphic and archaeological evidence is 
notably insufficient, as compared with that 
of the preceding centuries. It is no disserv- 
ice to the results achieved by recent scholar- 
ship to point out that the material at its 
disposal is lamentably small in proportion 

From H. St. L. B. Moss, "The Economic Consequences of the Barbarian Invasions," The Economic 
History Review, VII CMay, 1937), 209-216. Published for The Economic History Society by A. & C. 
Black, Ltd., London. Reprinted by permission of the Economic History Society and Mr. Moss. 


Economic Consequences of the Barbarian Invasions 


to the difficulty and extent of the problem. 
This being so, it is arguable that compre- 
hensive theories should be regarded at 
present rather as working hypotheses to be 
tested and possibly modified by gradually 
accumulating data, than as definite solu- 
tions to which all such data must necessarily 

"Barbarian Invasions" is a wide term, 
covering more than a millennium. For our 
present purpose we may define it as the 
Germanic settlements which, during the 
fifth and sixth centuries A. D., led to 
the breakdown of Roman government in 
the western provinces. This will exclude 
such later developments as the Slavs, the 
Northmen, the Magyars, and (except inci- 
dentally) the Arabs. The eastern Mediter- 
ranean, where Roman administration con- 
tinued to operate, is also excluded, though 
it was undoubtedly, during the whole of 
this period, the commercial focus of Europe. 
Spain and Africa, owing to the Islamic 
conquests, stand apart; and evidence con- 
cerning them is in any case insufficient for 
any brief generalisations. Britain is also, at 
this time, removed from the main course of 
western European history, and its special 
problems will not be entered upon here. 

The economic significance of the inva- 
sions has been presented in a fresh light by 
the results of recent investigation, which 
has led to a general softening down of 
climaxes and contrasts. Kulturcasur, an 
abrupt break of cultural continuitv, is no 
longer in question: for Rostovtzeff "what 
happened was a slow and gradual change, 
a shifting of values in the consciousness of 
men," though he admits the virtual dis- 
appearance of the Graeco-Roman city 
organisation, and a reduction of ancient 
civilisation to some essential elements. 
Chronologically, he adds, this "coincides 
with the political disintegration of the 
Roman Empire, and with a great 
in its social and economic life." This simpli- 
fication of the complex structure of the 
ancient world can be traced from the un- 
settled conditions which succeeded the 
Antonine Age, at the close of the second 

century; it is from this period, in F. Lot's 
view, 1 that the Middle Ages should properly 
be dated. The pace of regression was there- 
fore slow; and the continued contact and 
gradual fusion of the Roman and Germanic 
worlds, which was made possible by the 
survival, until the opening of the fifth 
century, of the Roman Empire in the West 
thanks largely to the measures of Dio- 
cletian and Constantine enabkd many 
Roman institutions to pass into the structure 
of the barbarian kingdoms. 

The details of this fusion have received 
much attention. Early German settlements 
within the frontiers have been noticed; the 
careers of Germans in Roman service have 
been traced. Economic and cultural rela- 
tions between the Empire and the barbar- 
ians have been studied. . . . The agrarian 
systems of the later Roman Empire and of 
the Teutonic peoples have given rise to 
much controversial literature. The contrast 
formerly drawn between the free association 
of the "Mark" of primitive German agri- 
culture and the despotic control of the great 
Roman estates had been abandoned, or seri- 
ously modified, by the end of last century, 
and emphasis is now laid by certain writers 
on the inequalities of German social classes 
and the essential continuity in landholding 
arrangements, from the ancient to the medi- 
eval worlds. Thus H. See, developing the 
teaching of Fustel de Coulanges, claims that 
in France "le personnel des proprietaires 
pourra changer au cours des temps, mais 
la villa et le manse subsisteront pendant 
des siecles, souvent avec leur dimensions 
primitives." 2 Italian authorities have simi- 
larly dwelt on the Roman survivals in their 

1 This view was developed by Ferdinand Lot in 
his The End of the Ancient 'World and the Begin- 
nings of the Middle Ages, London, 1931. [Editor's 

2 "the personnel of the owners will change in time, 
but the villa and the 'manse' will persist for centu- 
ries, often with their original boundaries." Henri 
See (1864-1930) was a leading French economic 
historian. Fustel de Coulanges Q830-1889) de- 
veloped a theory of Roman origins of feudalism, 
which though not generally accepted had a signifi- 
cant influence on historical interpretations in his 
day. [Editor's note] 


H. ST. L. B. MOSS 

country, not only in the organisation of the 
great estates, but in the city-centered life of 
the Lombards, and, as has been suggested, 
in the continued existence, even so late as 
the tenth century, of "artisan corporations" 
akin to those which characterised the indus- 
trial system of the later Roman state. 

Examination of the conditions prevailing 
in the Romano-German kingdoms has 
shown a compromise rather than a conquest, 
varying in the degree with the different 
peoples, but such is the trend of much 
recent theory with a considerably larger 
admixture of Roman elements that was 
formerly believed. Legal codes, marriage 
customs and social divisions exhibit many 
examples of interaction and even, perhaps, 
convergence of similar institutions, while 
the role played by the Church in the preser- 
vation of Roman legal and juridical methods 
has lately been brought into full promi- 
nence. Nor has the view of an unbroken 
economic regression, a steady drift towards 
"natural economy" from the third century 
onwards, been left unchallenged. It had 
already been noticed that the currency 
reforms of Constantine I were followed by 
a return to the monetary conditions of the 
earlier Empire, and G. Mickwitz has shown 
that these continued to exist throughout the 
fourth century; even the State itself, in 
whose interests it was to maintain the pay- 
ments in kind stabilised by Diocletian, had 
finally to capitulate before the demands of 
the army and civil service. The Ostrogothic 
kingdom in Italy, as Hartmann 3 had proved, 
was still organised on a money basis, the 
details of which have recently been eluci- 
dated by H. Geiss, and Italian writers have 
even maintained that no real breach is 
observable between the financial arrange- 
ments of the later Roman Empire and those 
of the Lombard government. Stress, in fact, 
is in general laid on the prevalence of a 
''money economy" throughout these cen- 

M. Hartmann (1865-1924), a German 
historian who applied the evolutionary approach. 
to the problem of the transition from Rome to 
Europe. Other historians mentioned in this para- 
graph are more recent writers. [Editor's notej 

turies, and the denial of any decisive eco- 
nomic change caused by the barbarians has 
involved the theory that commerce and 
finance suffered no serious setback. 

Two celebrated theories must be men- 
tioned in this connection, those of H. 
Pirenne and A. Dopsch, though space for- 
bids more than a brief description. In 
Pirenne's view, 4 the economic organisation 
of the provinces where the Germans settled 
underwent no appreciable change. The 
Mediterranean unity of the ancient world 
continued unbroken until the Islamic con- 
quests. Merovingian Gaul, in this respect, 
presented no contrasts xvith Roman Gaul. 
During the most flourishing period of 
Roman rule, Belgium had been in close 
contact xvith the Mediterranean world, im- 
porting, for instance, for her villas marble 
from Illyria and Africa and objets d'art of 
Italian or Oriental origin, and exporting 
hams and geese to the Imperial capital, and 
pottery and woollen cloaks over the Alpine 
roads to Italy. "In spite of the scanty evi- 
dence, xve know for certain that up to about 
the year 700, Mediterranean commerce was 
still spreading all kinds of Oriental spices 
over the country. Papyrus, imported from 
Egypt, was so plentiful that it could be 
regularly bought at the market of Cambrai, 
and no doubt in many other places." In 
little more than a generation, all this was 
changed. At the beginning of the Carolin- 
gian period, the adx r ance of Islam closed up 
the Mediterranean along the coast of Gaul, 
and severed Gallic relations xvith Syria and 
Egypt? drying up the stream of commerce 
from Marseilles. Under these conditions, 
an economy of regression, of decadence, 
rapidly set in. The result was the extinction 
of commerce, industry, and urban life, the 
disappearance of the merchant class, and 
the substitution for the "exchange economy" 
which had previously functioned of an 
economy occupied solely with the cultiva- 
tion of the soil and the consumption of its 
products by the oxvners. Even Italy and 

4 The remainder of this paragraph is a summary 
of Pirenne's views with quotations from his writ- 
ings, [Editor's note] 

Economic Consequences of the Barbarian Invasions 


the Netherlands, though at first presenting 
"a striking contrast with the essentially agri- 
cultural civilisation to which the closing of 
the Mediterranean had reduced western 
Europe/' were finally forced to adopt this 
retrogressive economy, in \vhich payments 
were largely rendered in kind. A species of 
Kulturcasur accompanied these develop- 
ments in France. The Roman lay schools 
had existed in Merovingian times, and 
merchants must have been literate to handle 
the complicated transactions of Mediter- 
ranean trade. Commercial culture, however, 
disappeared in the course of the eighth 
century; credit and contracts were no longer 
in use; writing was no longer needed, tallies 
or chalk marks sufficing for the deals of the 
local market, and the "mercator" of the 
ninth-century sources is no longer an edu- 
cated man of affairs, but a peasant carrying 
eggs and vegetables once a week to the 
neighbouring township. 

To summarise briefly the work of Dopsch 
is an even more hazardous task in view of 
the wide range of his theories and the con- 
siderable development which they have 
undergone. Covering the whole field of 
economic life from Caesar to Charlemagne, 
Dopsch has surveyed in detail the evidence 
for the relations between the German and 
Roman worlds, the importance of which 
had been first brought into full prominence 
in O. Seeck's brilliant work. 5 Emphasis is 
laid on the recent findings of archaeology, 
especially in the districts of the Rhine and 
upper Danube, as showing continuity on 
the occupied sites, and on the smallness of 
the difference in cultural level which, it is 
claimed, separated the German from the 
Roman population at the time of the inva- 
sions. It is no longer possible to regard the 
German as a mere peasant, or a follower of 
nomad raiding chiefs; he was also a settled 
farmer, a seafarer, a skilled merchant, even 
a city-dweller. The general conclusion, 
which resembles that of Seeck, is reached 
that the German peoples pervaded the 

5 Otto Seeck (1850-1921) wrote an important 
six-volume work on the period from Diocletian to 
476. [Editor's note] 

Roman Empire from within, by a kind of 
peaceful penetration; with the coming of 
the German kingdoms, the old-established 
firm, as it were, changed its name to that 
of the long predominant partner. The con- 
tinuity is worked out in great detail; land- 
holding, social classes, political organization 
are traced in the various kingdoms up to 
the time of the Carolingian ascendancy in 
western Europe. Industry and commerce 
are likewise held to show no hiatus, save 
for the temporary disturbances caused by 
the invasions. Trade still circulated along 
the Roman roads, carrying not only the 
luxuries, but the necessities of life. The 
nobility may have retreated to their country 
estates, but they remained in contact with 
the towns (which continued for the most 
part to exist) and produced for the local 
market. The whole theory of a regression 
to "natural economy" and the doctrine of a 
"closed domestic economy" must therefore 
be abandoned. The Germans had for cen- 
turies been accustomed to the handling of 
money, and even in the invasion period had 
carried on extensive trading activities. The 
Germanic kingdoms were therefore con- 
ducted on a currency basis, and financial 
policy formed part of their political pro- 
grammes. The Carolingian period, far from 
showing a decline, as in Pirenne's view, 
witnessed a considerable extension of trade 
and industry, and even the dissolution of 
Charlemagne's Empire was not followed by 
any regression to autarchic conditions. "The 
Carolingian development is a link in the 
unbroken chain of living continuity which 
leads, without any cultural break, from the 
late antiquity to the German middle ages." 
What, it may be asked, has become of 
"the great change in social and economic 
life" to which RostovtzefT refers"? From the 
studies which we have been analyzing, it 
would seem that nothing of the sort took 
place, and that the early Middle Ages 
preserved intact the fabric of later Roman 
economic organization. Some reservations 
may be suggested as regards the theories 
outlined above. In the first place, none of 
the attempts to provide a general economic 


H. ST. L. B. MOSS 

"pattern" for these centuries has succeeded 
in establishing itself beyond the reach of 
controversy. M. Weber and others had 
pointed to the recession to conditions of 
"natural Economy" which took place in the 
third century A. D., and to the settlement 
of nobles on country estates which supplied 
all their own needs. . . . Trade was only 
thinly spread, and the requirements of the 
State were not met, on the whole by mone- 
tary means. K. Bucher, building on this 
position, then formed his theory of stages, 
in which three main phases of development 
were traced in the economic history of 
Europe. The first, most primitive, stage, 
that of a "closed house-economy," covered 
the whole ancient world, and persisted until 
the tenth century A. D. His view was based, 
as regards ancient history, on an incomplete 
analysis, which examined principally the 
early Greek and late Roman periods. Sub- 
sequent work by Beloch and Ed. Meyer, 
among others, invalidated his conclusions. 
It was shown that the economic life of the 
ancient world, especially in the Hellenistic 
and Roman periods, attained a complexity 
of organisation which was not reached again 
till many centuries had passed. These views 
have been reinforced by epigraphic and 
archaeological research, and especially by 
the papyrus evidence from Egypt. Thus the 
theory of Bucher, as regards the Graeco- 
Roman world, has long ceased to find any 
general acceptance. Dopsch, however, com- 
plains that its influence continues to domi- 
nate the outlook of historical students upon 
the period under discussion. 6 

Yet the character of the later Roman 
organisation precludes any unhesitating 
acceptance in their entirety of Dopsch's 
views. Perhaps the greatest administrative 
change in European history was the replace- 
ment of the folis system by the Roman 

6 Historians mentioned in this paragraph: Max 
Weber (1864-1920) ranks as one of the most pro- 
found of German historians of his day; today we 
would call him a social scientist Karl Bucher was 
a German economic historian. Beloch (1854- 
1929) and E. Meyer (1855-1930) were German 
authorities on the ancient world. [Editor's note] 

world-empire. The organism of the self- 
governing city-state gave way to the new 
bureaucracy, supporting and supported by 
the central Imperial power, whose origin 
lay not in the old polis world, but rather in 
the great "private economies" of the Hellen- 
istic rulers. In the final stage, the constitu- 
tion of Diocletian and Constantine, the 
bureaucracy became the executive of the 
absolutist central government in all branches 
of administration. Society adapted itself to 
the new conditions, and the great land- 
owners gained a large measure of control 

o o 

over their dependents. Trade and industry, 
as Rostovtzeff has shown, were progressively 
subordinated to the public services. . . . 
But whereas in the east the centralizing 
bureaucracy prevailed, in the west, through 
the weakness, and final breakdown, of the 
imperial government, it was the decentralis- 
ing landowners who gained the upper hand. 
Indeed, in western Europe the decline may 
have set in long before; but the immense 
contrast, which recent studies have not 
weakened, between the east Roman world 
with its highly developed administration 
and civil service, its complex, and largely 
State-controlled, organisation of trade and 
commerce and the chaotic conditions, 
localised governments and decline of cul- 
tural standards in western Europe indicates 
more surely than anything else the changes 
wrought by the barbarian invasions. 

The onus of proof, therefore, lies on 
those who would seek to show that industry 
and trade suffered no vital and permanent 
setback when the fall of the Empire in the 
West had removed the unified framework 
of civil and military defense, and left in 
its place a number of different, and often 
antagonistic, governmental units. Such 
proof, if it is to cover the economic life of 
western Europe, must be not only extensive, 
but representative, and typical of whole 
countries. The provinces of the later Roman 
Empire already exhibited marked variations, 
and the circumstances of the barbarian 
settlements greatly increased them. In Italy, 
the contrasting conditions of the Byzantine 
exarchate and the Lombard districts are 

Economic Consequences of the Barbarian Invasions 


well known, and for the latter the unsatis- 
factory nature of the sources has often heen 
emphasised. ... In France, regional differ- 
ences are equally remarkable, and the un- 
equal and scanty nature of the evidence 
forms an inadequate basis for the far-reach- 
ing conclusions of Pirenne' s theory. The 
Germanic districts, for example, of the 
Merovingian realm rarely find mention in 
the sources, and the survival of Rhineland 
trade in the fifth and sixth centuries is 
incapable of proof. A principal part in that 
theory is played by the statements of 
Gregory of Tours, but the striking criticism 
of N. H. Baynes has gone far to invalidate 
the interpretation placed upon them, and 
his suggestion that the unity of the Medi- 
terranean world was broken, not by the 
advance o Islam, but by the pirate fleet of 
Vandal Carthage, seems more in accordance 
with probability. Moreover, in face of the 
general picture of the barbarous conditions 
in France delineated by Gregory of Tours, 
stronger proofs than Pirenne has been able 
to adduce are required before we can be 
confident of the survival of a highly devel- 
oped machinery of trade. It is not sufficient 
to point to examples of exotic imports as 
evidence of this. Easily portable luxuries 

amber, jewels, beads were carried enor- 
mous distances in prehistoric times, but 
such commerce belongs rather to the 
romance than to the everyday realities of 
economic life. Finally, the evidence for the 
continuance of the Roman educational 
system under the Merovings, to which 
Pirenne has devoted several studies, is not, 
in the opinion of the present writer, 

Dopsch's theory has developed from his 
criticism of opposing views, and it may be 
suggested that this circumstance has led to 
a somewhat one-sided presentation of the 
facts, and not infrequently to over-state- 
ment. The quality of his voluminous evi- 
dence varies considerably, and much of it 
has already been called in question. In 
drawing attention to the immense variety 
of conditions which prevailed in western 
Europe during these centuries, and in 
modifying the generalisations which have 
been put forward concerning its social and 
economic life, Dopsch has performed an 
invaluable service. Whether these modifica- 
tions are sufficiently far-reaching to establish 
a new and authoritative "pattern" of 
economic development is a more doubtful 



Norman H. Baynes (1 877- ), Britain's outstanding Byzantine scholar 
in our day, came to the field of history as he was approaching middle 
age. A barrister-at-law, during World War I he was confronted with a 
choice of continuing in the teaching and practice of law, or turning to 
the teaching and writing of history. For English historical scholarship his 
decision was a happy one; for close to thirty years he was a member of 
the teaching staff of University College, London, where he was held 
in great affection and high esteem. His scholarly work, extensive and 
arresting, which brought him many honors, including honorary degrees 
from Oxford and Cambridge, was largely devoted to Byzantine studies, 
or, as he preferred to call it, East Roman History. The selection which 
follows is from a book review, published in 1929, of the French edition 
of Pirenne's Medieval Cities. 

EIR M. PIRENNE the unity of the Medi- 
erranean world was maintained un- 
broken into the eighth century of our era: 
that unity was only shattered as a result 
of the Arab conquest of Africa. Upon the 
continent that theory has been vigorously 
canvassed and directly challenged; it gave 
rise, I understand, to the debate which most 
successfully enlivened the proceedings of 
the International Congress of Historical 
Studies at Oslo. To it British scholarship 
has paid little attention a disquieting sign 
of that general lack of interest in the early 
European Middle Age which is now preva- 
lent in this country. Yet the problem raised 
by M. Pirenne is of the greatest significance 
alike for the history of the later Roman 
Empire and for the understanding of the 
whole period of transition which separates 
the reign of Theodosius the Great from the 
age of Charlemagne. The central issue at 
stake is the position of Merovingian Gaul, 

and in particular the question of the part 
played by the Syrian merchants of the West 
in the economic life of the Merovingian 
kingdom. Here Gregory of Tours 1 is, of 
course, our principal authority. The His- 
tory of the Franks is an extensive work and 
it will probably be admitted that it has its 
longueurs: the most blood-thirsty reader can 
become sated by the story of incessant assas- 
sinations. Thus it may be suspected that the 
History is more often consulted than it is 
read through from beginning to end. Yet it 
is only by such a reading that one can gain 
an impression of the range of Gregory's in- 
terests and contacts. After such a reading 
I should like to take this opportunity to 
record my own personal impressions. M. 
Pirenne writes "La Mediterranee ne perd 

1 Gregory of Tours, 539-594. His History of the 
Franks is regarded as one of the most important 
historical works of the early Middle Ages. [Edi- 
tor's note] 

From "M. Pirenne and the Unity of the Mediterranean World," in Norman H. Baynes, Byzantine 
Studies and Other Essays (University of London, The Athlone Press, London, 1955), pp. 310-316. 
Reprinted from Journal of Roman Studies, XIX (1929), by permission of the Society for the Promotion 
of Roman Studies. 


M. Pirenne and the Unity of the Mediterranean World 


pas son importance apres la periode des 
invasions. Elle reste pour les Germains ce 
qu'elle etait avant leur arrivee: le centre 
meme de 1'Europe, le mare nostrum." ["The 
Mediterranean did not lose its importance 
after the period of the invasions. It re- 
mained for the Germans what it had been 
before their arrival: the very center of 
Europe, the mare nostrum."} In what sense 
and to what extent is this true"? How far 
can we prove direct contact between, let us 
say, Antioch or Alexandria and the ports of 
Merovingian Gaul? 

In the first place two remarks must be 
made: (i) Students of economics have been 
tempted to give to terms used in our medi- 
eval sources a modern significance which 
is foreign to their context. If a "merchant" 
is mentioned, they tend to presume that he 
is engaged in far-reaching, even transma- 
rine, transactions. . . . [But] the merchant 
may be solely concerned with local trade. 
GO From the mention of "Syrians" in the 
Western sources during the early Middle 
Ages there is not infrequently drawn the 
inference that these eastern immigrants re- 
mained in close commercial relations with 
their country of origin, or that the popula- 
tion of these colonies was being constantly 
reinforced by new arrivals from the East . . . 
this presupposition underlies all M. Bre- 
hier's work upon the subject. 2 That there 
was such commercial intercourse under the 
early Empire cannot be doubted: this it was 
which brought the Orientals to Western 
Europe. . . . Such intercourse continued 
through the fourth and into the early fifth 
century, but its persistence into the Middle 
Age of Merovingian Gaul cannot simply be 
assumed; the prior question must be asked: 
is there any justification for such an 

Perhaps the best method of approach is 
to study Gregory's knowledge of foreign 
countries: 3 what is the range of his infor- 

2 Louis Brehier is a French authority on Byzantine 
history. His best known work is Le Monde Byzan- 
tin, 3 vols. (Paris, 1947-1950). [Editors note] 

3 The references to The History of the Franks, 
supplied by Baynes, are omitted. [Editor's note] 

mation? Of affairs in Visigothic Spain he 
was fully informed: embassies were fre- 
quent, and he himself questioned Chil- 
peric's envoys to Leuvigild on the condition 
of the Spanish Catholics. Agilan, Leuvi- 
gild's envoy, passed through Tours and dis- 
puted with Gregory, and the bishop was 
present at the banquet given by Oppila. 
Of N. Italy Gregory naturally knew some- 
thing owing to the Prankish invasions of 
the country, but of S. Italy he seems to have 
known little: he can make the remarkable 
statement that Buccelin 4 captured Sicily 
and exacted tribute from it. Of Rome and of 
the Popes of the time we hear nothing, save 
of the appeal to John III in the case of the 
bishops Salonius and Sagittarius. [In the 
next book] however, we are given a long 
account of affairs in Rome, showing Greg- 
ory's readiness to be interested in the sub- 
ject when information could be obtained. 
The reason for this sudden extension of the 
range of Gregory's vision lies in the fact 
that a deacon of Tours, who had been sent 
on a mission to Rome to acquire relics of 
the saints, had just returned from Italy. If 
the reader will consider the character of the 
information there recorded, and Gregory's 
general silence on Roman matters he will, 
I think, infer that Gaul was at this time 
not in regular contact with Italy. I myself 
cannot believe that ships and traders were 
customarily passing between Italy and 
Merovingian Gaul. 5 


If we pass to the history of the Roman 
Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean the 
result is curiously similar. Of Justinian we 

4 Buccelin was a German chieftain; he and his 
men were crushed by Narses (one of Justinian's 
generals), near Capua in 554. [Editor's note] 

5 Individuals mentioned in this and subsequent 
paragraphs: Leuvigild was king of the Visigoths, 
568-586. Chilperic and Sigebert were sons of the 
Merovingian king of the Franks, Chlotar I; they 
and their two brothers waged civil war over the 
division of the kingdom following their father's 
death in 561. Tiberius II (578-582) and Maurice 
(582602) were Eastern Roman Emperors. Chil- 
debert II, son of Sigebert and of die famous 
Brunhild (Visigoth princess) was king of the 
Franks, 575596. Gundovald, illegitimate son of 
Chlotar I, revolted against Childebert IE and was 
crushed by Brunhild, [Editor's note] 



hear nothing save the appointment of 
Narses in place of Belisarius in Italy and 
the campaign in Spain. But of Justin's 
reign we learn more: of his character, of 
the capture by the Persians of Syrian Anti- 
och Anrioch is placed in Egypt! of the 
Persian War and of the association by 
Justin of Tiberius as colleague. This sud- 
den expansion of the narrative is due to the 
fact that envoys of Sigebert returned at 
this time to Gaul from an embassy to the 
imperial court at Constantinople. From the 
reign of Tiberius we are given legends of 
the emperor's liberality, an account of the 
plot to dethrone him in favour of Justinian, 
Justin's nephew, and of his Persian War; 
but of the stubborn defence of Sirmium 
against the Avars Gregory knows nothing. 
The source of his information and the rea- 
son for his silence may be conjectured from 
the fact that Chilperic's embassy to Tibe- 
rius returned to Gaul, it would appear, in 
the year 580. The operations against the 
Avars belong to the years 580-582. We take 
up the eastern story once more with the 
death of Tiberius and the accession of 
Maurice. Here again the information 
doubtless came through the imperial en- 
voys who brought a subsidy of 50,000 
pieces of gold to induce Childebert to at- 
tack the Lombards in Italy. Gregory's inter- 
est in the affairs of the East when he could 
obtain first-hand knowledge of happenings 
there is shown from his account of the cap- 
ture of Antioch by the Persians derived 
from the refugee bishop Simon, the Ar- 
menian. The conclusion which would seem 
to result from this analysis is that Gregory 
had no regular source of information for 
eastern affairs such as would have been fur- 
nished by traders had they been in con- 
tinued relation with the ports of the eastern 

Further, it is remarkable that Childe- 
bert's envoy to Constantinople, Grippo, did 
not sail directly to the East, but went to 
Carthage and there awaited the praefect's 
pleasure before he was allowed to proceed 
to the imperial court. M. Brehier points 

out that Gundovald left Constantinople 
and ultimately arrived at Marseilles. True, 
but Gregory gives no hint of his route; did 
he ? too, travel by way of Carthage? 

How far does Gregory's own narrative 
support this negative inference? There is 
a Syrian merchant at Bordeaux who pos- 
sessed a relic of St. Sergius, but at a time 
when pilgrimages and relic hunting were 
familiar who shall say how this finger of 
the saint reached Bordeaux? There were 
Svrians and Jews in Paris, and one of them, 
a ^merchant, by name Eusebius, secured by 
bribes the bishopric; a Syrian of Tours 
helped Gregory to translate into Latin the 
legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, 
but there is nothing to connect them with 
their Syrian homeland. In Merovingian 
Gaul the Bretons had ships; we hear of a 
ship owned by a Jew coasting from Nice 
to Marseilles; the Visigoths of Spain pos- 
sessed ships, a ship sailing from Spain "with 
the usual merchandise" arrives at Mar- 
seilles, while ships sailing from Gaul to 
Galicia are plundered by Leuvigild. No- 
where, so far as I can see, in the work of 
Gregory of Tours is there any suggestion 
of a direct contact of Merovingian Gaul 
with the eastern Mediterranean. If Justin- 
ian was constrained to resort to measures of 
fiscal oppression to compel shipowners to 
trade with the new imperial conquests in 
Italy and Africa, it is hardly likely that East 
Roman merchants would readily sail to the 
ports of Gaul. That products from the East 
reached Merovingian Gaul is clear, but the 
problem is whence did they come directly? 
Was it from imperial territory in Spain or 
from Carthage. 

My own belief is that the unity of the 
Mediterranean world was broken by the 
pirate fleet of Vandal Carthage and that 
the shattered unity was never restored. A 
Merovingian might have pepper to his 
meat, the wine of Gaza might be a bait to 
lure a man to his assassination but Gaul 
of the Merovingians, so far as vital contacts 
with the empire were concerned, was from 
the first marooned. Gregory with all his 

M. Pirenne and the Unity of the Mediterranean World 


advantages only gained occasional frag- 
ments of information upon the doings of 
Romania. . . . 

If, then, the view which I have endeav- 
oured to set forth has any foundation, it is 
misleading to state that for the Franks of 
the sixth century the Mediterranean still 
remained "mare nostrum"; we can only ac- 
cept with qualifications the statement that 
"the great Mediterranean commerce which 
flourished in Gaul during the Late Empire 

subsisted into the 6th and even into the 7th 
century"; it is only true at a remove that 
"of Byzantium, of Asia Minor and of Egypt 
Jewish merchants, but more especially 
Syrian merchants continued to supply it 
(Gaul) with luxury goods, with precious 
fabrics, with fine wines." 6 

6 The quotations are from F. Vercauteren (an- 
other Belgian historian) and from Pirenne. 
Baynes quotes them in French. [Editor's note] 

A Revision 


Robert S. Lopez, born and educated in Italy, came to the United 
States shortly before World War II; during that conflict he served with 
the Italian Section of the Office of War Information. He has since 
become recognized as one of the most active and competent of the 
younger medievalists in this country. He has taught at Brooklyn College 
and at Columbia and is presently at Yale. One of his many research 
interests has been in the field of medieval trade in the Mediterranean 
and he has accordingly been much involved in the Pirenne controversy. 
One of his early contributions, an important one, appeared in Speculum 
in 1943 and this article is here reproduced in its entirety, save for the 
omission of a few foreign terms. Professor Lopez now considers this 
paper only "a pioneer effort in a direction which was explored more 
thoroughly since its publication." It Is nonetheless valuable in illustrating 
the character of the controversy fifteen years ago. It is also a clear 
expression of many of the fundamental issues in the problem, and if 
certain of the answers he then gave have been since superseded it is in 
part from further research by Professor Lopez himself. Some of this he 
sets forth in the second extract which is taken from a paper which he 
read at the Tenth International Congress of Historical Sciences conven- 
ing in Rome in 1955. 

IT is not my purpose to challenge the 
core of Pirenne's conclusions. Maho- 
met et Charlemagne, and Dopsch's Grund- 
lagen however much one may disagree 
on point of details and on range of implica- 
tions have helped historians to realize that 
their traditional division of ages was wrong: 
Germanic invasions did not mark the be- 
ginning of a new era; Arab invasions did. 
This is undoubtedly true in so far as 
history of culture is concerned. The great 
push of the Germans had been preceded 
by long interpenetration, and was followed 
by thorough fusion of the newcomers into 
the mass of the conquered people. The fol- 
lowers of Alaric, Theodoric and Clovis 

neither wanted to nor could break the 
moral unity of the Western Empire, and 
its connections with the East. They only 
gave a political expression to those particu- 
larisms which were already cracking the 
surface of the old Roman edifice without 
breaking its deep foundations. The Latin 
language and Latin literature, however 
much their already advanced barbarization 
may have been precipitated by the impact 
of rude invaders, remained as the common 
background of European culture. The 
greatest achievements of the mediaeval 
"Germanized" world, the Church and the 
Empire, were either a heritage or an imi- 
tation of Roman institutions. As soon as 

From "Mohammed and Charlemagne : A Revision," Speculum, XVIII (January, 1943), 14-38. By 
permission of the Medieval Academy of America, Cambridge, Mass. 


Mohammed and Charlemagne 


Europe was again able to produce some- 
thing great and original, Roman peoples 
again took the lead. Niebelungennot and 
the wooden buildings of the Germans were 
forgotten for Romanesque and French 
("Gothic") architecture, and for the Italian 
Divina Corn-media. 

On the other hand, wherever the Arabs 
stepped on Romanic soil (except in Spain 
and in Sicily, outposts which they held for 
too short a time), they eradicated the classic 
roots forever. A slow but sweeping revolu- 
tion won over the masses in Syria, Egypt, 
and North Africa to a new civilization, 
whose language and religion (these typical 
expressions of a people's soul) were the 
language and the religion of the conquer- 
ors. There was no Arab Romanesque archi- 
tecture, and no Arab Imperium. Even 
where there was imitation, an original 
blend was formed out of three cultures 
Graeco-Roman, Persian, and Semitic. 

However, neither Pirenne nor Dopsch 
lays as much stress on cultural relations as 
they do on economic and social conditions. 
I shall not discuss here the views of 
Dopsch. Let us remark only that, while his 
thesis cannot be slighted as an element in 
the understanding of the early Middle 
Ages, his documentation has been recog- 
nized as too scanty and questionable for the 
wide inferences which many followers of 
Dopsch have drawn. Are the foundations 
of Pirenne's economic theory more solid? 
At first, one cannot but be struck by the 
four "disappearances" which he pointed out 
as the symptoms of a disruption of the eco- 
nomic unity of the Mediterranean coun- 
tries after the Arabic invasions. Papyrus, 
Oriental luxury cloths, spices, and gold cur- 
rency shrank gradually to the Eastern part 
of the Mediterranean; under the Carolin- 
gians, Europe had almost entirely aban- 
doned their use. Pirenne's documentation 
is striking. 

And yet, on a close examination, it ap- 
pears that the four "disappearances" were 
not contemporary either with the Arab 
advance or with each other; indeed, it is not 
exact to speak of disappearances. Papyrus 

was manufactured exclusively in Egypt, 
and this province was conquered by the 
Arabs between 639 and 641. But it was 
only in 692 that the Merovingian chancery 
ceased to use papyrus for its official docu- 
ments. Other powers of the Christian world 
(as we shall see better later) continued to 
use papyrus for several centuries after- 
wards. Gold money ceased to be struck 
in France, apparently, only in the second 
half of the eighth century; in Italy, it came 
to an abrupt end in or about 800 a date 
of no importance for the Caliphate, but a 
great date for Europe. Furthermore, there 
was a brilliant resumption of gold currency 
under Louis the Pious; and gold kept an 
important place among the means of ex- 
change, at least in Italy and in England, 
under the form of foreign and imitated 
coins, metallic dust, and ingots. A Belgian 
scholar, Sabbe, has recently proved that 
there was still a current of importation of 
Oriental cloth during the ninth and tenth 
centuries. Although his essay does not cover 
specifically the trade in spices, occasional 
references to it lead us to draw a similar 

In the presence of these circumstances, it 
seems difficult to maintain a "catastrophic" 
thesis, and to envisage Arab conquests as 
the cause of a sudden collapse in interna- 
tional trade which, in turn, would have 
produced sweeping social and economic in- 
ternal revolutions. In other words, there 
were no sudden changes as an immediate 
and direct repercussion of the Arab con- 
quests. International trade was not swept 
away at one stroke, and "closed economy" 
did not spring up at once in the regions 
outside the gleam of the Moslem Crescent. 
However, new trends slowly asserted them- 
selves in the economy of the Western 
world. These trends should be related to 
conditions existing in the Arab or Byzantine 
world, for any disturbance in the European 
supply of Oriental wares is likely to orig- 
inate in events occurring somewhere in the 

We shall have a first clue if we take into 
account a circumstance which Pirenne and 



his followers seem to have overlooked: 
Three of the "disappearing" goods gold 
currency, luxury fabrics, and papyrus 
were state monopolies, and their sale had 
been subjected to special restrictions ever 
since the Roman Empire, A short survey 
of these restrictions will be necessary to 
understand the whole problem. 

Currency has been, and still is, a public 
monopoly in almost all civilized states. This 
depends chiefly on two causes. On the one 
hand, it is felt that issuing the most tangi- 
ble and popular symbol of wealth should be 
a prerogative of the sovereign power. On 
the other hand, it is deemed that state con- 
trol is the best means to give to the para- 
mount instrument of exchanges universal 
credit, a stable standard, and a surety 
against counterfeiting. Thus currency is at 
the same time a sovereign function what 
the Middle Ages called a "regale" and a 
device of public interest. 

Besides, money can become a source of 
public income (in other words, a fiscal mo- 
nopoly) if the state can make the people 
accept coins at a higher price than the 
actual content of their bullion plus cost of 
coinage. But this development of currency, 
no matter how often a state can resort to it, 
is a pathologic phenomenon which sooner 
or later defeats the very aims of currency, 
and makes it unfit as a means of exchange. 
In the Roman Republic and Empire, 
money had always been both a symbol of 
sovereign power and a device for public 
interest. Debasements had taken place re- 
peatedly, but the notion that coinage might 
be a mere source of income for the state, 
variable at the will of the rulers, was never 

However, there was a distinction and a 
hierarchy of metals, the origins of which 
can be traced back to similar regulations of 
the Persian and Seleucid monarchies. The 
state mints for copper and silver were some- 
times leased out, at least until a law (393 
A.D.) prohibited such a practice and re- 
voked all the earlier grants; but gold mints 
were never leased out. Silver and copper 
money, with both standard and types differ- 

ent from those of the state currency, were 
allowed to some autonomous municipalities 
for local use; but gold was never struck in 
local mints. The Senate of the Republic 
struck every sort of money; but after the 
rise of Augustus, it was left with the right 
to strike copper only. Gold and silver state 
coinage became a monopoly of the Em- 
peror, who also had coppers struck occa- 
sionally in the provinces. 

When the "Principate" was transformed 
into a "Dominate," both Senate coppers and 
autonomous municipal coinage of silver 
and copper were driven out in a few years 
by the extraordinary emissions of debased 
coins in the imperial mints. No definite 
order of dissolution seems to have been en- 
acted; but the mint of the Senate was never 
reopened (except under the Ostrogoths), 
and local coinage had only sporadic and 
short-lived reappearances, as long as the 
Roman and the Byzantine Empires lasted. 
This extension of imperial monopoly to 
every kind of money and every metal must 
be connected with the progress of absolut- 
ism. Forging coins, striking them in private 
workshops, refusing old and worn imperial 
money was regarded as a "sacrilegium," or 
an act of "laesa maiestas," because it im- 
plied an outrage to the effigy of the sov- 
ereign impressed on the coins. But motives 
of public interest were almost as influential 
as this new stress on the sacred character 
of money-regale, for in the fourth, fifth, and 
sixth centuries there was such an increase 
in forgeries, that the only remedy seemed 
to be a thorough and undiscriminating state 

The rise of barbaric autonomous states 
formally subjected to imperial suzerainty 
again raised the problem of local currency. 
Once more, the view of the Emperors (as 
stated by Procopius and confirmed by the 
extant coins) was that barbarian kings 
should be entided to strike both copper and 
silver with their own effigies and names; 
but gold could be lawfully struck only with 
the portrait and name of the Roman Em- 
peror. Along with this pretension went the 
Byzantine claim that no foreign prince 

Mohammed and Charlemagne 


could call himself Emperor (Basileus) on 
equal terms with the autocrat of Constan- 

Altogether, these pretensions suffered no 
serious challenge for a long time. The 
Vandals and the Ostrogoths never struck 
gold coins with the effigies of their sover- 
eigns. The Visigoths and the Lombards be- 
gan to issue gold with their king's portrait 
only very late, when they had no longer 
anything to fear from the Emperor's wrath. 
Theodebert I, the Merovingian, while at 
war against Justinian the Great, struck some 
personal gold coins which roused the in- 
dignation of Procopius; it is true that Jus- 
tinian, on his side, hurt the feelings of the 
Prankish ruler by assuming the title of 
"Francicus," which amounted to a claim to 
a triumph over him. After Theodebert, no 
Merovingian king struck gold with his own 
portrait for some years. When this "usurpa- 
tion" was committed again, the Emperor 
needed Prankish alliance against the Lom- 
bards, too badly to raise complaints. A 
similar calculation must have led the 
Basileis not only to overlook the gold coin- 
age of the Ethiopian kings of Aksum, but 
to bestow on them the title of Basileis in 
the official correspondence. The common 
rival of Byzantium and Aksum, the Sa- 
sanian "Shahan Sha" (King of the Kings), 
was also called Basileus and regarded as an 
equal by the Basileus of Constantinople. 
But he eventually abandoned gold cur- 
rency, to the great satisfaction of the Byzan- 
tine court. His pride could find a compen- 
sation in the yearly tribute that the Empire 
had to pay to him. 

The success of Constantinople in matters 
of money-regale was not entirely due to the 
prestige and the power of the Emperors. 
In Western Europe not only gold, but even 
the less valuable metals continued to be 
struck in large amounts with the portrait of 
the Emperor, because the populace, accus- 
tomed to the traditional types, was reluctant 
to accept coins of an unusual appearance* 
In Persia and in some of the barbaric states, 
gold was of little use anyway, because the 
exchanges were generally of a modest 

amount, and silver was more suitable for 
the common needs. Finally, the title of 
"rex" had an equivalent in all the Indo- 
European languages, while that of u impera- 
tor" was proper to Latin only. 

Nonetheless, it is an undoubted fact that 
the early Germanic rulers recognized some 
moral hierarchic superiority of the Emper- 
ors in several other respects. As for gold 
currency, we cannot say that German kings 
did not care about it because they had no 
"regalian" notion. On the contrary, the bar- 
baric states of Western Europe as a rule 
maintained a state monopoly of money. 
Even more, both Visigoths and Lombards 
apparently followed closely the develop- 
ments of eastern Roman law on that matter. 
As soon as the Byzantine Empire changed 
the penalty to be enforced on money- 
counterfeiters, the same modification was 
introduced by Receswinth in Spain and by 
Rothari in Italy. 1 Besides, Rothari seems to 
have re-organized the Lombard mints ac- 
cording to an administrative reform of 
emperor Heraclius. Only the Merovingian 
state followed an opposite course: the very 
notion of state monopoly was slowly for- 
gotten, and private moneyers began to 
strike on private order coins bearing no 
other marks than the moneyer's signature, 
the customer's name, and the place of emis- 
sion. This was because the Merovingian 
monarchies during the seventh century 
underwent a steady decline of internal co- 
hesion and international relations. 

The inclusion of some kinds of cloths 
and jewelry in the "regalian" monopolies 
will not seem surprising, if we remember 
that in the late Roman and Byzantine Em- 
pires the sovereign impersonated the state, 
and- made himself a superhuman being to 
the eyes of the populace, even by his ex- 
terior appearance. Thus imperial garments 
and jewelry were symbols of the nation, 
almost like our flag. An offense against 
them was really a threat to the stability of 

1 Receswindi Cd. 672) was king of the Visigoths; 
Rothari Cd. 652) was king of the Lombards, par- 
ticularly important for his codification of Lombard 
customary law. [Editor s note] 



the regime, and the protection extended to 
them could be regarded as a matter of pub- 
lic interest. This notion had already ap- 
peared in the Oriental monarchies, where 
the worship of the sovereign was taken as a 
matter of course. But the Romans were 
proud of their personal freedom and dig- 
nity. As long as they were allowed, they 
spoke of "our plebeian purple" (as opposed 
to the other peoples' "royal purple") with 
a satisfaction similar to our pride in free 
speech and popular government. 

Only the Late Empire introduced the 
worship of the living autocrat, and de- 
stroyed even the exterior forms of liberty. 
Purple-dyed and gold-embroidered cloths, 
and jewelry of several categories were 
brought under "regalian" restrictions. A 
hierarchy of materials, parallel to the hier- 
archy of offices, was established in this 
monopoly, as it had been established in 
currency. A certain kind of purple and 
some special jewels were allowed only to 
God, to the saints, and to the sovereigns. 
Other ceremonial garments were reserved 
to high officers; by that means, they shared 
in the veneration owed to the Emperor. 
Other cloths even some dyed with pur- 
ple or embroidered with gold and silk- 
continued to be permitted to the common- 
ers. This arrangement was subject to fluc- 
tuations, for, in the fifth century, there 
were innumerable crimes of "majesty" 
that is, private use of imperial garments and 
jewels. The only remedy appeared to be to 
extend the state monopoly to a much larger 
field than the strictly "tabooed" objects. 
Little by little, as the citizens made up their 
minds to reserve some ornaments to the 
sacred person of the sovereign and to his 
dignitaries, unnecessary restrictions were 

When the Western Empire was dismem- 
bered, the Byzantine Emperors were able 
to defend their monopoly of ceremonial 
garments better than that of gold currency. 
As a matter of fact, some of the raw mate- 
rials (silk, several qualities of purple-dyes, 
pearls and other precious stones) could not 
be found in Western Europe. Furthermore, 

the goldsmiths and clothiers of the Barbar- 
ians were often very skilled in their own 
way, but they could not reproduce the pat- 
terns of Roman aulic art. Thus the Empire 
had practically a monopoly of production 
and supply. Control of exportation was 
sufficient to prevent Barbarian leaders from 
robing themselves in garments which they 
were not supposed to wear. Not only 
"regalian" considerations, but a "premer- 
cantilistic" outlook led the Emperors to en- 
force on exporters even more drastic restric- 
tions than those enforced at home. It was 
not convenient to allow gold, precious 
stones, and secrets of textile industries to 
be taken out of the state. 

On the other hand, the Emperors them- 
selves used to buy off Barbarian rulers by 
fifts of ceremonial garments and jewels, 
uch gifts were cautiously dealt out, lest 
their value depreciated. Besides, no im- 
perial mantles and crowns were given, but 
only ornaments allowed to Byzantine high 
officers. Thus the donors could feel that 
they were enlisting Barbarians in the army 
of Byzantine officers and vassals, while the 
grantees usually felt pleased and exalted 
with the gifts. Likewise, the gift of re- 
galian ornaments to churches and clergy 
in the West was one of the weapons of the 
Byzantine ecclesiastic diplomacy. But the 
amount of objects obtained by that means, 
captured as war prizes, or smuggled into 
Western Europe with the help of bribed 
imperial manufacturers and customs-officers, 
could never be very large. Furthermore, 
some of the Barbaric peoples (although not 
all of them) cared little for the shining, 
but somewhat effeminate apparel of the 
Basil eis. They took more pride in their 
national fur garments, spurned by the 
Romans, and in Germanic parade armors. 
The situation was different in Persia and 
in Ethiopia, where both raw materials and 
finished objects could be secured without 
Byzantine intermediaries. In these coun- 
tries, the local ceremonial costumes were 
similar to those of the Eastern Empire; in- 
deed, the latter repeatedly borrowed Persian 
aulic fashions. Apparently the Basileis were 

Mohammed and Charlemagne 


wise enough not to put forward any monop- 
olistic claims as regards Ethiopia and Persia. 
At any rate, it was less wounding to see 
the sovereigns of those very ancient states 
dressed in purple than the unpedigreed 
rulers of provinces recently belonging to 
the Romans. 

Papyrus had also been subject to restric- 
tions under the Ptolemies, but on a differ- 
ent ground. In Hellenistic Egypt nearly all 
the wares of some value were under fiscal 
monopoly, no matter whether the stability 
of the regime or the public welfare required 
it or not. While some of these goods were 
directly produced and sold by state agents, 
more often private entrepreneurs leased out 
portions of the monopolistic rights in one 
or more provinces. There was no absolute 
monopoly on papyrus production, although 
many fields were directly cultivated and 
exploited by the crown. But the private 
producers, apparently, could sell only to the 
king the best qualities of papyrus ("basilike 
charte," royal papyrus). Moreover, public 
notaries were expected to write their instru- 
ments on this kind of papyrus, and to pay a 
tax on every deed. 

It seems that these provisions did not aim 
at protecting against forgeries of docu- 
ments; they were only one of the number- 
less restrictions by which the Ptolemies 
fleeced their flock. This is why the Romans, 
systematically opposed to fiscal monopolies, 
seem to have removed the obstacles against 
free commerce. But they maintained the 
duty on notarial instruments as a sort of 
certification fee. 

This tax, however, contained the germ 
of the elements for the later growth of a 
state monopoly with a purpose of public 
interest. As a matter of fact, during the 
fifth and sixth centuries the increasing for- 
geries of documents led the Emperors to 
issue a set of provisions which revived and 
completed the ancient restrictions. Notaries 
public were obliged again to use only 
"basilike charte" for their deeds. This time, 
the restrictions did not aim primarily at 
securing an outlet for the state production 
of papyrus, but rather at bringing under 

state control the drawing of legal docu- 
ments. The right of selling state papyrus 
apparently had been leased out to private 
citizens in the provinces; now such leases 
were revoked. Justinian ordered that no 
notarial instrument drawn in Constanti- 
nople should be recognized as authentic, 
unless each roll of papyrus had an un- 
touched first sheet, which contained the 
subscription of the state officers attached to 
papyrus administration. Another guarantee 
of authenticity was the heading, to be com- 
piled according to a definite formula, with 
the names of both the ruling sovereign 
and the consuls. Particular cautions were 
adopted for state documents: Purple ink 
must be used for the signature of the Em- 
peror; golden seals, with an effigy of the 
sovereign like that on golden coins, were 
also attached to the most important im- 
perial documents. Again, for state docu- 
ments issued by members of the imperial 
family or by subordinate officers a special, 
but inferior set of precautions was adopted. 
Silver ink, silver, leaden or clay seals, and 
other exterior features pointed out the im- 
portance of the various writs, in proportion 
to the authority of the writer. 

By that way a new field of monopolies 
was opened. Obviously their aim could be 
qualified as one of public interest. The fact 
that the Emperor, and his officers, lent in 
different ways the prestige of their names 
and portraits, caused restrictions and cau- 
tions concerning state and notarial instru- 
ments to take on the character of regales. 
Forging imperial documents signed with 
purple ink, or even using such an ink foi 
private writing, was regarded as a crime of 
majesty, committed "tyrannico spiritu," and 
liable to capital penalty. Forgeries of less 
solemn charters were punished by maiming 
of a hand. 

These laws apparently were taken over, 
in a simplified form, both by the Visigoths 
and the Lombards, at the same time as 
Heraclius* legislation on currency. The 
Pope and the bishops, who followed Ro- 
man law, seem to have uniformed their 
correspondence to the rules set in Constan- 



tinople. Since the production of papyrus was 
strictly localized in the Byzantine province 
of Egypt, whoever used papyrus (even out- 
side the borders of the Empire) had to bow 
to the imperial monopoly. On the other 
hand, as the monopoly was one of produc- 
tion, and not of use like the clothing mo- 
nopoly, the supply of lawful writing mate- 
rial to the Western chanceries and notaries 
went on unhampered. 

The appearance of the Arabs among the 
great powers of the Mediterranean did not, 
at first, bring about such a revolution in the 
system of regalian monopolies as it could 
have. To be sure, the conquerors could 
seize in Egypt and in Syria two Byzantine 
state mints, a number of dye-houses for 
ceremonial garments, and the whole output 
of papyrus. But work was carried on almost 
as usual, with unchanged staff and un- 
altered standard of production. The Arabs, 
as a rule, conserved the existing state of 
things wherever they had no definite rea- 
sons to change it. They were slow in setting 
up regalian monopolies, for they had none 
at home. When they did, however, they 
were not awkward and half-hearted imi- 
tators, like the Germans. On the contrary, 
the Arabs built a solid state organization out 
of an original blend of Byzantine, Persian 
and national institutions. 

According to an early tradition, the 
Prophet praised himself for having "left to 
Mesopotamia its dirhem and its hafiz, to 
Syria its mudd and its dinar, to Egypt its 
ardeb and its dinar." As a matter of fact, 
the bulk of circulation in the early Arab 
Caliphate was formed by pre-Arabic Sasan- 
ian, Byzantine and a few Himyarite (South- 
Arabic) coins, plus new money of the Em- 
pire which was currently imported by 
merchants. This currency of foreign origin 
was soon augmented with domestic imita- 
tions, privately struck, of Persian and By- 
zantine coins. 

We have already remarked that the same 
phenomenon occurred with the Germans. 
But in the Arab Empire, where civilization 
was older and money exchanges were 
larger, the period before autonomous cur- 

rency would not have lasted so long, but 
for peculiar delaying reasons. All the 
moneys in use at the time of the Arab con- 
quest bore some representations of living 
objects, and such figures were unwelcome 
(although not altogether prohibited) be- 
cause of the Islamic religious principles. On 
the other hand, it would have been almost 
impossible to get the subject peoples to 
accept suddenly money with simple in- 
scriptions. J Ali, 2 the champion of the old 
indigenous orthodoxy, tried to put out some 
non-figured coins but his attempt died with 

The simplest solution by far was tolerat- 
ing the maintenance of the traditional, un- 
official currency. Thus the blame for the 
figures could fall upon the foreign rulers 
and the unauthorized private moneyers 
who had struck the coins. At the most, 
some emblems of the Gentile religion were 
completed (or replaced after erasure) with 
legends praising Allah and Mohammed. 
Moreover, even this practice was not alto- 
gether immune from the censure of the 
most rigid lawyers, because such coins with 
their sacred formula were exposed to falling 
into the hands of men legally impure. At 
last, under Caliph Mu'awiyah, 3 a few cop- 
pers were issued on which the portrait of 
the Basileus holding a cross was replaced 
by that of the Caliph brandishing a sword. 
But gold currency, the pride of the Empire, 
was not affected; and Mu'awiyah gave a 
greater satisfaction to the Emperor, by bind- 
ing himself to the payment of a yearly 

While the currency, destined mainly to 
be handled by the Gentile subjects, was not 
modified for a long time, the Arabs soon 
conformed the drawing of their own state 
documents to the precepts of Islam. Seals 
had been largely used, even for private 
correspondence, before Mohammed; there- 

2 *Ali was a son-in-law of Mohammed and was 
caliph, 655-661. [Editor's note] 
3 Mu'awiyah was the first Omayyad caliph (661- 
680) and one of the great Moslem statesmen. He 
developed a centralized autocratic administration, 
with, headquarters at Damascus, which unified the 
Moslem world. [Editor's note] 

Mohammed and Charlemagne 


fore we may cast some doubt on a tradition, 
according to which the Prophet had a seal 
engraved only when he was told that the 
Emperor would not read his letters if un- 
sealed. At any rate, we have full evidence 
that the seal of the Caliphate was protected 
by a special "regalian" notion, as early as 
the time of 'Umar I, 4 the conqueror of Syria 
and Egypt. A little later, Mu'awiyah or- 
ganized an Office of the State Seal, on the 
model of a similar Sasanian institution. The 
Byzantine papyrus manufacturers in Egypt 
were maintained under state control, al- 
though it is not clear whether or not the 
imperial regulation for monopoly of the 
best qualities of papyrus was enforced by 
the Arabs without modifications. 

For internal use the Arabs adapted the 
preparation of chancery materials and 
records to the needs of their own state and 
religious organization. It is true that some 
figures of animals (and, occasionally, even 
of men), as well as the cross, were left on 
the seals and the protocols, as merely deco- 
rative adornments. But the name of the 
Basileus and the Christian formulae were 
soon replaced by the name of the Caliph 
and Islamic sentences. However, on the 
papyri which were exported to the Empire 
the Christian workers of the papyrus fac- 
tories replaced the name of the Basileus, 
which obviously could not be written on 
the protocol (in Arabic "tiraz"), by an in- 
vocation to the Trinity. This arrangement, 
worked out or tolerated by the Islamic offi- 
cers, was advantageous for both the Empire 
and the Caliphate. The former secured the 
usual supply of a material necessary to the 
chancery and the notaries for Justinian's 
laws, which ordered the use of papyrus 
with untouched protocols, were still in 
force. The Arabs, on their side, drew large 
profits from this exportation, and, in that 
way, secured a continuous inflow of that 
Byzantine gold which formed the bulk of 
their currency. 

An arrangement of the same kind was 

4 'Umar I was the caliph (634-644) under whom 
Islam expanded religiously and politically over 
Syria, Egypt, and Persia. [Editor's note] 

worked out for embroidered ceremonial 
cloths. It was an Arabic use modeled, 
apparently, on a Persian custom, for no evi- 
dence of a similar practice can be found on 
Byzantine cloths before the so-called Byzan- 
tine Middle Ages that a "tiraz" with the 
name of the Caliph and religious sentences 
should be embroidered on all ceremonial 
cloths. But on the tissues which were ex- 
ported into Christian countries only an in- 
vocation to the Trinity was applied. 

This unwritten compromise was broken 
by the real founder of the Arab adminis- 
trative machinery, 'Abd al-Malik. 5 He could 
not think of reforms in the first years of his 
reign, for he was engaged in an all-out civil 
war against 'Abdallah ibn-az-Zubair; in- 
deed, for the sake of peace he had even to 
increase the yearly tribute to the Emperor 
(686 or 687 A.D.). But, as soon as the 
danger was overcome, the Caliph resolutely 
inaugurated a new policy, with the double 
aim of consolidating the central power, and 
of offering some satisfaction to the orthodox 
Arab element, from which came the main 
support of the enemies of his dynasty. The 
brother of ibn-az-Zubair had coined a num- 
ber of small silver dirhems; 'Abd al-Malik 
ordered them to be broken up, thus show- 
ing a decidedly "regalian" viewpoint. Then 
he ordered the invocation to the Trinity 
and the cross on the "tiraz" of the papyri 
and cloths destined for export replaced by 
Moslem formulae. Emperor Justinian II, 
who evidently did not want to break the 
advantageous treaty of 686-687, tried re- 
peatedly to obtain the withdrawal of those 
provisions by large gifts; he always met 
with a refusal. Finally his rash and violent 
character prevailed over diplomatic tact He 
threatened the Caliph with putting an out- 
rageous inscription against the Prophet on 
his gold coins, which (as he thought) the 
Arabs could not help using. 

But the Caliph was now the stronger. 
As a reprisal, he entirely prohibited the 
exportation of papyrus, and inaugurated a 

5 'Abd al-Malik was caliph 685-705. [Editor's 



national gold and silver currency, of the 
same type as the figured coppers of 
Mu'awiyah. He thought of making the 
new coins acceptable to the Byzantine pride 
(or was it a refinement of jest: 3 ) by sending 
the first specimen of this new money as a 
part of the yearly tribute; besides, he prom- 
ised to keep accepting the Byzantine gold 
currency in his own states. But when Jus- 
tinian saw his own humiliation brought 
home to him, under the form of the coins 
bearing the name and the portrait of 'Abd 
al-Malik, he decided that the only issue left 
was war. Unfortunately, he was abandoned 
on the battlefield by the contingent of 
Slavs, on whom he relied. The Arabs, who 
had hoisted on their lances the broken 
treaty, gained a complete victory. 

Nevertheless, the pretensions of the By- 
zantine rulers were satisfied in a way. The 
portrait of a Caliph on coins hurt the feel- 
ings of the orthodox "fukaha" as much as 
those of the Basileus, although the reasons 
for complaint were different. 'Abd al-Malik 
had succeeded in introducing into circula- 
tion a national type of coin; he soon took 
a further step, and had money coined like 
that of 'Ali, without any figure or personal 
symbol. After a short period of transition, 
when both figured and non-figured coins 
circulated together, the new type, bearing 
only pious inscriptions, affirmed itself. 
Ever since, the currency of Moslem dynas- 
ties has been without figures, with only a 
few exceptions. Even the recollection that 
there had been Islamic figured coins was 
eventually lost. 

It would be incautious to dismiss the 
whole history of this "regalian" war by 
ascribing it to the "foolishness" of Justinian 
and to the "diabolic shrewdness" of 'Abd 
al-Malik, as do some later Byzantine chroni- 
clers, bitterly adverse to the Emperor. To 
be sure, Justinian II was one of the worst 
men who ever sat on the Byzantine throne. 
But the war was more than a collision be- 
tween a hot and cool head. It was a chal- 
lenge between an old civilization, proud 
of its religious tradition and world power, 
and a new state, which had to make room 

for the set-up of its own sacred formulae 
and sovereign prerogatives. A few years 
later, when the successor of Justinian, 
Philippicus, inaugurated a religious policy 
sharply hostile to the Pope, the Romans 
showed their solidarity with the latter by 
rejecting all the documents and the coins 
bearing the seal or the portrait of the im- 
pious Basileus. This proves that now the 
respect for the regalian character of moneys 
was not merely an artificial imposition of 
the rulers, but let us repeat it a popular 
feeling comparable with our reverence for 
the national flag. 

The regalian notion of currency and of 
"tiraz" (both on ceremonial cloths and on 
public documents) almost at once took 
deep roots in the Caliphate, and in the vari- 
ous Moslem states which sprang up on its 
farthest provinces. Monopolistic state fac- 
tories were established everywhere, with 
the same functions as those of the Byzan- 
tine Empire. The sovereign, and some 
members of his family or of his court ap- 
pointed by him, reserved to themselves the 
right to put their names on the inscriptions 
of regalian objects. A hierarchy of mate- 
rials in each kind of monopolies, corre- 
sponding to the hierarchy of officers, was 
established by custom if not, perhaps, by 
law: Gold silver copper for coins; differ- 
ent qualities of garments; probably, also 
different kinds of charters. To be sure, 
restrictions were never as extended as in 
the Empire. To give only some instances, 
mints were often leased out; in Egypt, state 
textile manufacturies were set up only to 
give the finishing touch to cloths prepared 
in private workshops; the maiming penalty 
for infringers of regalian monopolies was 
suggested and enforced on several occa- 
sions, but it could never prevail against the 
stubborn hostility of nationalistic lawyers. 
But, altogether, the new regalian policy of 
Moslem rulers after 'Abd al-Malik stressed 
the same points which so far had been 
maintained by the Greeks. 

As regards papyrus, the Arabs were in 
the same position as the Byzantine Empire 
before the loss of Egypt. They had the 

Mohammed and Charlemagne 


monopoly of production; if the other coun- 
tries wanted any papyrus at all, they had 
to accept it as it was produced by the 
Moslem factories. Rather than waive the old 
laws on chancery and notarial instruments, 
the Basileis seem to have adapted them- 
selves to the new situation. They continued 
to use papyrus, as is demonstrated by the 
earliest letter of a Byzantine Emperor of 
which an original fragment has come down 
to us (beginning of the ninth century). 
But, since the manufacturers no longer 
inscribed on the protocols the invocation to 
the Trinity, the Emperors transferred this 
invocation to the heading of the documents. 
Only in the tenth century, when Egypt 
itself ceased to manufacture papyrus be- 
cause paper had replaced it all over the 
Arab states, was it necessary for the Greek 
chancery to adopt parchment. 

The Roman regulation for the drawing 
of authentic documents was generally 
observed by the Popes, the Church, and 
the Byzantine territories of Italy. For in- 
stance, the consular date is found on most 
of the Papal documents, and on many 
private sources of the Roman region, until 
the first years of the tenth century. Papyrus 
was the only material used for formal Papal 
charters until the end of that century 
with only one exception and did not dis- 
appear entirely until 1057. A bull of John 
VII (year 876), which has been preserved 
with parts of the original protocol, bears on 
it the invocation to Allah, according to the 
regulation of 'Abd al-Malik. Papyrus was 
also widely used by bishops until the late 
eighth century; indeed, we know at least 
one episcopal letter written on that material 
as late as 977. We know many Roman 
private documents on papyrus of the same 
period; the last one is of 998. Urban docu- 
ments of Ravenna, a Byzantine city until 
751, and, later a center of studies in Roman 
Law, are on papyrus until the middle of 
the tenth century. Those are the instances 
which we can ascertain; on the other hand, 
the very largest part of papyri from Western 
Europe has certainly not come down to us, 
because this writing material, unlike parch- 

ment, is extremely perishable except in a 
dry climate. In conclusion, we can well 
say that wherever the Roman regulation 
was observed, the disappearance of papyrus 
was not caused by the Arab conquests, but 
by the victory of paper three centimes later. 

In the barbaric states, however, Roman 
law was melting away. No consular dates 
are found in the secular documents of 
Lombard, Italy, France, and Germany. In 
a few private charters the words "sub die 
consule," without any indication of the 
consul's name, are the only relics of a 
forgotten formula, added by sheer force of 
habit. Force of habit led the Merovingian 
royal chancery to use imported papyrus 
until 692, although parchment, which could 
be easily produced at home, began occasion- 
ally to be used from 670 on. But in 692 
the embargo enforced by } Abd al-Malik cut 
the supply entirely for some time. When 
this embargo was lifted, the Merovingian 
chancery did not go back to a costly material 
which had been purchased only out of 
respect to a vanishing tradition. 

Unfortunately, no original documents of 
the Lombard chancery have come down to 
us. But all our knowledge of them, although 
indirect, leads us to think that not only 
the royal charters, but even those of the 
dukes were written on papyrus. This may 
explain why they all have perished. On 
the other hand, the earliest Italian private 
document on parchment which has come 
down to us, a notarial deed from Piacenza, 
dates from 716 that is, twenty-eight years 
later than the Arab embargo. We may infer 
that the tradition of Roman law was still 
the stronger in Italy, in so far as state and 
church documents were concerned. But 
the reform of 'Abd al-Malik probably 
affected private instruments in Italy in the 
same way as it affected royal charters in 
France. In Germany, too, the earliest docu- 
ments on parchment which have been 
preserved are of the second quarter of the 
eighth century. Thus it would seem that 
where Roman legal traditions declined, the 
introduction of parchment for royal or 
notarial documents was not brought about 



directly by the Arab conquest of Egypt, 
fait })y the organization of Arab state 
monopolies, fifty years later. 

When we compare Merovingian and 
Carolingian currency, we are naturally led 
to regard those two periods as separated by 
a sharp contrast. First we have mainly 
golden coins with a portrait; then we find 
chiefly silver coins with an inscription. 
However, the transition took place over a 
long time. The output of silver coins became 
abundant in France as early as the last years 
of the sixth century long before Moham- 
med and the decline of the Merovingians. 
On the other hand, it is true that the 
proportion of gold in circulation decreased 
steadily under the late Merovingians, and 
that no gold at all seems to have been struck 
by Pepin the Short (though we cannot 
exclude that some such coin may be even- 
tually yielded by a new find); but gold 
money was struck under Charlemagne and, 
even more, under Louis the Pious. Like- 
wise, the shift from figured to non-figured 
money was gradual and progressive during 
the sixth and seventh centuries. We have 
no figured coins of Pepin, but we have 
many of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. 

A connection of this gradual, though 
interrupted decrease of gold coins with a 
steady decrease in the volume of exchanges 
cannot be doubted. On the other hand, the 
decline of portraiture on coins must be 
connected with both the general decline of 
art, and the decadence of the sovereign 
power. Silver is more convenient than gold 
for small exchanges; unskilled moneyers 
will prefer easy epigraphic types, unless a 
sovereign insists on advertising his own 
portrait on coins. These trends, let us repeat 
it, appeared earlier than the Arab invasions, 
and therefore cannot have been caused 
directly and exclusively by them. Pepin 
the Short was the first who tried to bring 
back some uniformity in currency, and to 
restore partially the regalian monopoly, 
which the "rois faineants" had allowed to 
melt away. The easiest path towards uni- 
formity obviously was to stress the existing 

trends, and to suppress altogether the fig- 
ured golden coins, relics of a dying past. 
The political, artistic and economic renais- 
sance under Charlemagne and Louis I was 
incomplete and ephemeral; so was the 
revival of figured and golden currency 
during their reigns. 

These observations take into no account 
the possible influence of Arab invasions, 
but do not exclude that there may have 
been such an influence. However, we must 
remark again a circumstance that Pirenne 
and his followers seem to have overlooked: 
the period of Arab conquest in the East, 
and even in Spain, is not one of sudden 
changes in the Merovingian currency. 
Comparatively sweeping changes occurred 
only \vhen an autonomous dynasty took 
power over Spain. This region had gold 
currency under both the Visigoths and the 
officers of the central Caliphate. But the 
first independent Cordovan ruler, 'Abd al- 
Rahman I a contemporary of Pepin the 
Short seems to have refrained both from 
striking gold and from assuming the title 
of Caliph, because another man ruled as 
Caliph (although unlawfully) over the 
Holy Cities of the Moslems. Only in the 
tenth century, after the Eastern Caliphate 
was practically dominated by the Turkish 
guard, did 'Abd al-Rahman III assume the 
title of Caliph at Cordova. At the same 
time, he began regularly to strike gold. It 
is quite possible that the influence of the 
silver standard in a neighbor state led Pepin 
to carry out the complete abandonment of 
the gold standard in his own kingdom. 

Likewise, the example of the epigraphic 
currency of the Arabs very likely encour- 
aged Prankish moneyers to abandon entirely 
the striking of figured coins, inasmuch as 
these coins were struck mainly in Provence, 
at the doorstep of Spain. This influence 
could not be felt before the second quarter 
of the eighth century, for in Spain the 
Arabs did not suppress at once the figured 
coins. To sum up, we may assume that the 
new trends in Prankish currency, begun 
"before the Arab conquests , were not influ- 

Mohammed and Charlemagne 


enced by the trade disruption that these 
conquests may have caused, but by 'parallel 
trends of Arab currency in Spain. 

Islamic epigraphic currency not only 
influenced silver and copper coinage in the 
barbaric states of Western Europe, but even 
those gold coins, which had been regarded 
as the paramount show-place for the royal 
effigy. The only coins of this metal that 
Charlemagne struck in France (at Uzes, 
not far from the Arab border) are epi- 
graphic. His contemporary, Offa, the 
Mercian king, struck gold with his name in 
Latin letters and a legend in Arabic, copied 
from an Abasside dinar; even the date was 
that of the Hegira, 157 (774 A.D.). Imita- 
tions of this kind grew more and more 
abundant until the thirteenth century. Thus 
the Arab dinar partly replaced the Byzan- 
tine nomisma as a model for the currency 
of Western Europe. Now this phenomenon 
is certainly not the symptom of a crisis in 
trade brought about by the Arabs; on the 
contrary, it shows that the Arab merchants 
for some time surpassed the Greeks. 

Once more, the Lombard kingdom pre- 
sented a different picture. While the Arabic 
states had no common borders with it, the 
Byzantine Empire enveloped it from almost 
every side, and even wedged into its central 
part. There was a continuous exchange of 
influences between the barbaric and the 
Byzantine mints of Italy; the mint of 
Ravenna passed from the Greeks to the 
Lombards a few months before Pepin began 
his work of restoration of state control on 
money in France. State control was never 
waived in the Lombard kingdom, and coin- 
age remained faithful to the figured type, 
although, here too, artistic decadence caused 
legends to cover a larger and larger part of 
the coins. Furthermore, the predominance 
of the gold standard was never challenged; 
indeed, the quantity of silver in circulation 
seems to have been very scanty, as it was 
in the Empire. On the other hand, figured 
coins and the gold standard had remained 
paramount also in the Visigothic kingdom 
until it was conquered by the Arabs. Gold 

emissions took place more than once in 
England from the time of Offa to that of 
Edward the Confessor. Thus we may con- 
clude that the new trends in Merovingian 
and early Carolingian currency were only 
local phenomena. 

It must be pointed out that Lombard gold 
coinage after Rothari did not bear the 
portrait of the Byzantine Emperor (except 
for the local currency of the dukes of 
Benevento), but that of the national king. 
Therefore, it constituted a challenge to the 
imperial regalian pretensions the only 
challenge still existing since the Arabs and 
the Franks had adopted epigraphic types, 
and the Visigothic kingdom had been over- 
run. This challenge was not removed by 
Charlemagne when he conquered Italy. 
Lombard mints merely replaced on golden 
coins the portrait and the name of the 
national king with those of the new ruler. 
Meanwhile, in France, only epigraphic 
coinage was carried on as before. But there 
was a sudden change after Charlemagne 
was crowned emperor. Gold currency was 
discontinued all over his states, except for 
the epigraphic coins of Uzes, which were 
still in circulation in 813, despite some 
complaints of a council. The epigraphic 
currency of silver and copper was with- 
drawn, and replaced everywhere by coins 
of classic inspiration, bearing the portrait 
of the Emperor crowned with laurels, his 
name, and the imperial title. 

There can be no doubt that the establish- 
ment of uniform standards for the whole 
empire was a step towards centralization. 
But it remains to be explained why the 
Byzantine figured type was chosen for silver 
and copper, and why such little gold as was 
still in circulation kept the epigraphic type. 
We are more likely to find a clue in 
Charlemagne's relations with the Byzantine 
Empire, than in the consequences of Arab 
invasions which occurred one century 
earlier or more! In fact, Charlemagne's as- 
sumption of the imperial title was certainly 
a hard blow to the Byzantine pretensions. 
Since the disappearance of the Sasanian 



and Aksumite monarchies, no foreign ruler 
had yet dared to style himself an Emperor. 
All the contemporary sources agree in point- 
ing out that Charlemagne realized the 
gravity of his act. He made every possible 
effort to appease the Byzantine pride, and 
to secure some recognition of his title from 
the legitimate emperor of Constantinople. 
On the other hand, it has been remarked 
that he did not call himself "Romanorum 
imperator," like the Basileus, but "Impera- 
tor . . . Romanorum gubernans imperium." 
This title, being a little more modest than 
the other one, could possibly sound more 
acceptable to Constantinople than a for- 
mula implying absolute parity. 

It may be suggested that the abandon- 
ment of figured gold currency, which re- 
moved the last challenge to the Byzantine 
monopoly, was another good-will move, 
intended to pave the way for an under- 
standing. A similar arrangement had been 
worked out between Byzantium and Persia, 
and its memory had not been forgotten. 
Thus, in Italy, gold coinage was abandoned 
altogether, for it would have been difficult 
to persuade Italians to accept unusual non- 
figured coins. In France, epigraphic golden 
money was not a new thing; still, even 
there, it aroused complaints, apparently 
because it lent itself to forgery. 

If our interpretation may be accepted, we 
shall infer that Charlemagne's monetary 
reforms were not prompted by the progress 
of Arab invasions, hut, primarily, loy con- 
siderations of good-neighbor policy towards 
the Byzantine Empire. Obviously this does 
not imply that the economic background 
had nothing to do with these reforms. 
Probably Charlemagne would not have 
sacrificed figured gold coinage to reconcilia- 
tion with the Basileis unless the prestige 
and the economic usefulness of gold had 
already lost so much ground in France; to 
a large extent, his reforms were the comple- 
tion of those of Pepin. But in Italy the 
economic situation did not justify the aban- 
donment of gold. Since no new coins of 
this metal were produced at home after 
Charlemagne, foreign gold coins (Arabic 

and Byzantine) took the place of the old 
Lombard currency all over the peninsula. 

In 806, when the relations with the 
Eastern Empire were at their worst, Charle- 
magne did not even mention the imperial 
dignity in his division of his states among 
his sons. But an understanding, implying 
the recognition of Charlemagne as "impera- 
tor et basileus" by the Byzantine ambassa- 
dors, was finally reached in 812 at Aix- 
la-Chapelle. In the same place (not in 
Rome!), one year later, the old emperor 
placed the crown on the head of Louis the 
Pious and ordered him to be called "imper- 
ator et Augustus/' In 814 Louis succeeded 
to the throne; he maintained passably good 
diplomatic relations with the Emperors of 
the East. The Basileis were drawn to a 
friendly attitude by their hope of securing 
the help of the second Carolingian "em- 
peror" against the Arabs and the Bulgarians; 
but this hope was not realized. Much worse 
(at least, worse to the eyes of the cere- 
monial-conscious Byzantine Emperors), 
Louis felt bold enough to strike gold coins 
with his own name and portrait, of the 
same type as Charlemagne's imperial silver 
and copper. The obverse of these coins bore 
a crown with the words "minus divinum," 
implying that Louis was emperor by the 
grace of God, and not a sort of a cadet of 
his Eastern brother. It is true that this 
affirmation of power was not made from 
an Italian mint, even though Italy would 
have been the most appropriate soil on 
which to start gold currency again. The 
gold coinage of Louis was struck in that 
part of his empire which was the farthest 
from the Byzantine border, and the nearest 
to those uncivilized Germanic tribes which 
were still likely to be dazzled by the prestige 
of figured gold money. But, on their side, 
the Basileis Michael and Theophilus called 
themselves, in a letter to Louis, "in ipso Deo 
imperatores Romanorum." They branded 
him as "regi Francorum et Langobardorum 
et vocato eorum Imperatori!" 

The ecclesiastic conflict for the parity of 
Constantinople with Rome, and for the 
Bulgarian church, gave the last blows to 

Mohammed and Charlemagne 


the crumbling compromise of Aix-la-Cha- 
pelle. When the balance of powers was 
definitely broken by the partition of the 
Western Empire, and by the accession of 
the energetic Macedonian dynasty in the 
East, Basil I formally withdrew the Byzan- 
tine recognition of the imperial rank of the 
Carolingian monarchs. Louis II could only 
send a diplomatic note, where he reminded 
Basil that, at any rate, the title of "basileus" 
had been granted in the past to many rulers 
both heathen and Christians. But his 
protest remained unanswered. Under these 
circumstances, Louis II could well have 
retaliated by resuming gold currency. The 
princes of Benevento struck regularly gold 
money, and we know that for some years 
Louis II had silver struck in Benevento 
with his own name and imperial title. No 
golden coins of Louis have come down to 
us; but we cannot make much of a proof 
"ex silentio," since his power over Benevento 
lasted seven years only. Afterwards, Bene- 
vento recognized Byzantine overlordship; it 
is remarkable that no gold seems to have 
been struck there after this recognition. 

At any rate, gold has always been essen- 
tially the instrument of international trade 
as Marc Bloch has pointed out. For local 
trade silver was usually sufficient. Gold 
coins, if internationally accepted, were a 
vehicle of prestige for the ruler whose name 
and effigy they bore; but not every ruler's 
name could give international credit to 
golden coins. Already in the eighth century, 
the long intermission of gold coinage in 
France had caused Prankish money to dis- 
appear from those internationally accepted. 
Louis the Pious tried to go against the 
stream; but only the Frisians and the Saxons 
were impressed by his prestige enough to 
use widely his golden coins, and even to 
carry on for some time domestic imitations 
of them. But the powerless successors of 
Louis, who were not even able to maintain 
the sovereign monopoly of currency, could 
have no hope of persuading international 
merchants to carry along Prankish gold 
instead of the famous Byzantine nomismata 
and Moslem dinar. In conclusion, the 

definitive abandonment of the gold stand- 
ard after Louis the Pious -was not directly 
connected with the Arab invasions, hut de- 
fended on the insufficient prestige of the 
Western monarchs. Only when the prestige 
of both the Greeks and Arabs declined, in 
the thirteenth century was it possible to 

resume the striking of gold in Western 

n & & 


If neither the "disappearance" of papyrus 
nor that of gold currency is connected with 
a sudden regression in trade caused by the 
Arab conquests, the thesis of Pirenne has 
little support left. As a matter of fact, the 
evidence collected in the above-mentioned 
essay of Sabbe is more than sufficient to 
prove that the trade of Oriental purple- 
dyed and embroidered cloths was never in- 
terrupted in Western Europe. At the most, 
we can suppose that this trade suffered a 
temporary depression although there are 
no grounds for this supposition, and, at any 
rate, no comparative statistics can be drawn 
when sources are casual, scant, and far be- 
tween. Nevertheless, for the sake of a fur- 
ther demonstration, we shall assume that 
there was a depression. Must such a hypo- 
thetical trend be connected with a general 
disruption of trader 1 

First of all, we should take into account 
the trends in matters of etiquette and cos- 
tumes. Let us repeat that the value of a 
symbol does not reach farther than the con- 
vention on which the symbol is based. A 
flag would have been a scrap of cloth in 
the Roman Republic. The Huns and most 
of the early Germans did not care for im- 
perial purple. Now we may agree with 
Halphen in discounting as a sheer inven- 
tion the witty anecdote of the Monk of 
Saint Gall, where Charlemagne is shown 
playing a cunning trick on his officers, who 
had preferred refined Oriental garments to 
the simple national costumes. Still the 
anecdote is doubtless evidence of a wide- 
spread attitude of the Franks when the 
Monk was writing, in the second half of 
the ninth century. Another source relates 
that Charles the Bald, after being crowned 
by John III, wore a Byzantine ceremonial 



dress, and drew upon himself the blame of 
his subjects for spurning "the tradition of 
the Prankish kings for the Greek vanity." 
Again the source is unfair to Charles al- 
though the "Hellenism" of this sovereign, 
expecially in regalian matters, is an un- 
doubted fact. But the ground chosen to 
put blame on Charles must express an 
actual sentiment. 

In conclusion, the diminished use of 
Oriental cloths among the laymen (if there 
was a diminution) depended to a great ex- 
tent on a change in fashions. The Church 
did not change fashions, and, in fact, the 
largest 'part of the existing evidence of 
Oriental cloths in Western Europe relates 
to the Church. 

On the other hand, we must remember 
that the regalian monopoly of cloths and 
jewelry unlike the monopolies of cur- 
rency and papyrus did not cover only 
manufacturing and trade, but the use itself 
of many qualities of these objects. The ex- 
pressions of the Byzantine 'Itommerldarioi" 
(customs-officers), as related by Liudprand 6 
in the tenth century, are significant. The 
Greeks maintained that the wearing of 
cloths dyed with special qualities of purple 
(including some which were not reserved 
to the emperor and to the high officers) 
should be allowed only to the Byzantine 
nation, "as we surpass all other nations in 
wealth and wisdom." Thus the monopoly 
of cloths, like that of gold currency, had 
ceased to be an arbitrary imposition of the 
government, and had taken roots in popu- 
lar feelings. 

A very meticulous and complex set of 
provisions (which we know in detail only 
for the tenth century, but based to a large 
extent on laws of the late Roman Empire) 
established various categories of cloths, ac- 
cording to qualities of dye and to size. 
Some categories could be exported without 
restrictions, some were vetoed to exporters, 
some could be purchased only in limited 

6 Liudprand (ca. 922-972), Bishop of Cremona 
and an important historian. The work here cited 
is an account of his mission (for Otto I) to Con- 
stantinople in 968. [Editor's note] 

amounts. Subjects of the Empire (such as 
the Venetians and the citizens of some 
Southern Italian cities) and merchants of 
some allied countries (such as Bulgarians 
and Russians) enjoyed special facilities by 
treaty. But in no case was unlimited ex- 
portation granted. Even churches and mon- 
asteries, if located in foreign countries, 
could not get Byzantine ceremonial objects 
for their shrines without special permission 
by the Basileus. Foreign ambassadors had 
to submit their luggage to the visit of the 
"kommerkiarioi," whose final inspection 
completed the usual, permanent control of 
the cloth market and of the jewelry-shops 
entrusted to special city officers. 

Under these circumstances, the largest 
source of supply for Western Europe prob- 
ably was the already mentioned custom of 
the' Emperors of sending ceremonial ob- 
jects as diplomatic gifts. Some Emperors 
dispensed such gifts lavishly both to foreign 
princes and to churches. But those monarchs 
who felt little necessity to win over allies 
or to conciliate the Western Church for 
instance, the great Iconoclasts, contempo- 
rary of Charles Martel and Pepin the Short 
were much stricter. As late as the tenth 
century, Constantinus Porphyrogenitus 
warned his son against complying with the 
requests for imperial crowns, stoles and 
cloths, which were so frequently advanced 
by the Mongolic and Slavonic neighbors 
of the Empire. These stoles and crowns, he 
said (and he almost believed it) were not 
made by human hands, but sent from 
Heaven by the Angels themselves. 

To be sure, there was another source of 
supply: smuggling. Vigilant and numerous 
as they were, the controllers could not see 
everything; and they were only too often 
bribable at will. If we should believe the 
unfair account of Liudprand, at the time 
of Constantine Porphyrogenitus even the 
prostitutes in Italy could bestow on them- 
selves the very ornaments which the Angels 
had intended for the august Basileus only. 
But Liudprand grossly exaggerates. The 
price itself of Oriental cloths, the cost of 
transportation, and the bribe for the com- 

Mohammed and Charlemagne 


plaisant officers must have reserved to very 
few Westerners the pleasure of bootlegged 
goods, even under as weak an emperor as 
Constantlne VII. When the power was in 
the hands of a man "tachucheir," with a 
long reach (such as Nicephorus Phocas), 

smuggling must have been practicallv 

LI } 


However, Oriental cloths could be pur- 
chased in Arabic-ruled countries, too. It is 
true that since 'Abd al-Malik a monopoly 
had been established, and that Moslem 
rulers, in general, were more sparing than 
the Basileis in their diplomatic gifts of 
cloths. But, as a rule, the restrictions en- 
forced by Islamic princes were not as tight 
as those of the Eastern Empire. This ex- 
plains why many great personages of West- 
ern Europe including clergymen and cru- 
saders displayed on many occasions glow- 
ing ceremonial garments, where the praise 
of Allah was embroidered in the "tiraz," in 
words luckily unintelligible to most of the 
bearers of such a cloth! 

To sum up, any fluctuation which may 
be noticed in the supply of Oriental cloths 
is likely to stem from a fluctuation in the 
efficiency of state control or in the system 
of alliances of the Byzantine and Arab gov- 
ernments. The rise of the Aral? "Empire, far 
from curtailing supply, made it a little less 
difficult to obtain cloth, because of the 
Arabs looser notion of regalian monopoly. 

Of fluctuations in the trade of spices we 
know but little. Some of the documents 
quoted by Sabbe show that spices too were 
occasionally imported into Western Europe, 
right at the time when Pirenne speaks of 
disappearance. But, unfortunately, we have 
no specific essay on that question, I shall 
give only a few general remarks, which are 
a suggestion of fields for investigation, 
rather than matter-of-fact statements. 

Once more, the evolution of taste should 
be taken into account. Were the tough 
noblemen and the rough ecclesiastic gran- 
dees of early medieva^ Western Europe as 

fond of spiced food as the Romans and the 
men of the Renaissance? We know that 
the latter were persons of a nice palate. The 
gastronomic history of the early Middle 
Ages has not been expounded as yet in 
detail, but the hypothesis of a coarser taste 
may be not altogether unlikely. 

On the other hand, the spices arrived 
from countries so different and far apart, 
that it is not enough to connect the fluc- 
tuations in supply with the general rela- 
tions between the zArab world and Western 
Europe. Revolutions which occurred in the 
Asiatic Far East, or in Dark Africa, may 
have affected the spice trade very deeply. 
In 1343, according to an Italian chronicler, 
a war between the Golden Horde and the 
Genoese colonies in Crimea caused spices 
to rise from fifty to one hundred per cent 
in price. It should be expected that crises 
of the same kind w r ere caused by Asiatic 
wars of the early Middle Ages. Now the 
eighth century, which saw the rise of the 
Carolingians in Western Europe, was an 
epoch of troubles for Eastern Asia. India 
was going through the crisis which fol- 
lowed the defeat of Buddhism and the tri- 
umph of Rajput "feudalism." While the 
Arabs invaded the Sindh in 712, Hindu- 
stan was being split into a great number 
of petty states. The Chinese T'ang dynast} 7 , 
after reaching the peak of its power in the 
seventh century, suffered severe blows. In 
751 the Arabs stopped the Chinese expan- 
sion in Central Asia (battle of Talas). Be- 
tween 755 and 763 the emperors, driven 
out of their capital by a revolution, asked 
the help of the Uighurs to retake the city 
a remedy worse than the sore. In 758, the 
Moslems sacked and burned Canton. These 
do not seem very favorable circumstances 
for the continuity of trade relations. But 
the situation gradually improved in the 
ninth century, and, in fact, evidence of 
spices in Western Europe grows less scant 
in that century. 



E SECOND POINT we have to investi- 
gate is the problem of continuity. 
Granted that alternations of better and 
worse periods are unavoidable in any pro- 
tracted economic activity, and that large 
scale commerce in early mediaeval Catholic 
Europe cannot be expected at any period, 
can we assume that commercial relations 
with the Byzantine and Muslim world were 
never interrupted, or do we have to look for 
a total eclipse at a certain moment? 

For the fifth, sixth, and early seventh 
centuries the question does not arise. Vir- 
tually nobody believes any more that the 
barbarian invasions of the fifth century 
marked a sharp turn in economic history, 
although most historians will admit that the 
meeting of German immaturity with Roman 
decrepitude accelerated the process of dis- 
integration whose first symptoms can be 
traced as far back as the age of the 
Antonines. The sixth century culminated 
in the partial restoration of Mediterranean 
unity under Byzantine auspices. Astride 
that century and the following one the 
letters of Gregory I give us a full docu- 
mentation of continuing, if thinned out, 
intercourse between the Mediterranean East 
and virtually all parts of Europe. Under 
Justinian, China had unwittingly made its 
earliest contribution to the economic equip- 
ment of Europe the silkworm and in 
the time of Heraclius 1 Egyptian ships again 
crossed the strait of Gibraltar to obtain 
English tin. Slowly but steadily, the West- 

1 Heraclius, a Byzantine Emperor, 610-641. [Edi- 
tor's note] 

ern barbarians rebuilt a network of commu- 
nications with one another, ultimately 
leading to the more refined East. Countries 
which in antiquity had been almost un- 
touched by Rome, such as Ireland and the 
Baltic regions, now began to look toward 
Constantinople. What commerce has lost 
in intensity was partly compensated for by 
gains in geographic expansion. 

Paradoxically, the absolution of the back- 
ward Germans paved the way for an indict- 
ment of the progressive Arabs. While some 
scholars were content with mild accusations 
and roundabout charges the Arabs weak- 
ened the international trade of the Mediter- 
ranean by moving the economic center of 
gravity eastwards to Irak and Persia, or by 
touching off a Byzantine reprisal blockade 
across the traditional sea routes Henri 
Pirenne made the Arabs squarely and 
directly responsible for pulling an iron 
curtain which separated the Believers from 
the Infidels and left Europe an economic 
and cultural dead end. His superb pleading 
and his personal charm won many converts. 
Nevertheless, a large number of scholars 
the majority, I should say were not con- 
vinced. For the last twenty years nearly all 
that has been written on early mediaeval 
economic history has reflected the heat of 
the controversy on 'les theses d'Henri 
Pirenne." Probably the law of diminishing 
returns should persuade us to move on to 
equally controversial and less belabored 
fields. This does not exempt us, however, 
from recalling briefly the main issues. Inas- 
much as I have long been an admirer of 

From R. S. Lopez, "East and West in the Early Middle Ages: Economic Relations." Paper read in 
1955 at Tenth International Congress of Historical Sciences, convening in Rome. Printed in Relazioni 
del X Congresso Internazionale di Scienze Storiche, vol. Ill, pp. 129-137. G. C. Sansoni Editore, 
Firenze. Reprinted by permission of G. C. Sansoni and Professor Lopez. 


East and West in the Early Middle Ages 


Pirenne but an opponent of "Mahomet et 
Charlemagne/' I shall not pretend imparti- 

It has been argued that Arab regular 
fleets and piratical parties made the Medi- 
terranean impassable for Christian ships at 
one time or another. For short intervals and 
in specific areas, this is an undeniable fact. 
To the many instances cited by Pirenne and 
his followers I would like to add a testimony 
they overlooked: the Life of St. Gregory 
Decapolites (780-842). It describes the 
Byzantine ships and sailors of Ephesus as 
bottled up in the port for fear of Islamic 
pirates, a ship of Enos as chased along a 
river by Slavic pirates, and navigation from 
Corinth to Rome as extremely dangerous 
on account of Sicilian pirates. Still it is 
obvious that pirates could not have multi- 
plied and survived without trade to prey 
upon. There always were calmer interludes 
and fairly safe detours; and even the worst 
hurdles could be leaped over by fast block- 
ade runners or smashed through by heavily 
protected convoys. To be sure, all of this 
made the high cost of transportation still 
higher; but the cost was not the main 
consideration in the international trade of 
the early middle ages, which both before 
and after the coming of the Arabs consisted 
above all of luxury wares and war materials. 
At any rate, war hazards are far from in- 
compatible with commercial expansion and 
trade in cheaper goods. In the thirteenth 
century both war risks and the volume of 
trade in the Mediterranean world grew to 
unprecedented amounts. 

It has been claimed, openly or by impli- 
cation, that the conflict between Muslims 
and Christians differed from other collisions 
in the Mediterranean because it was an 
"antagonism between two creeds" or, in- 
deed, between "two worlds mutually foreign 
and hostile." Even on theoretical grounds, 
this contention is questionable. Their paths 
diverged more and more with time, but 
originally both the Arabs and the Germans 
were wanderers who adopted Greco-Roman 
institutions and Hebraic monotheism. In 
the eyes of Christian theologians, Moham- 

med was a heretic, not a pagan; in the words 
of Muslim lawyers, the Christians were a 
"people of the Book," not heathens who 
ought to be either converted or killed. Of 
course there was mutual hatred and name 
calling, though probably not as much as 
during and after the Crusades; but hatred 
does not occur solely between peoples of a 
different creed. It certainly did not prevent 
political and economic intercourse. To cite 
only a few illustrations from the Carolingian 
period, in 813 the ambassadors of the 
Aghlabid 2 emir aboard a Venetian convoy 
aided the Christian crew in attacking a 
convoy of Spanish Muslims. Then they 
proceeded to Sicily, to renew with the 
Byzantine governor the agreement which 
ensured to the citizens of each country the 
right to travel and trade in the other. A few 
years later, the Bishop and Duke of Naples 
a Christian port which had welcomed 
Muslim ships as early as 722 joined the 
rulers of Amalfi and Gaeta in an alliance 
with the Muslims against Pope John VIII. 
The alliance was so profitable that the Pope 
was unable to win back the support of 
Amalfi either by threatening excommunica- 
tion or by offering total customs exemption 
in Rome and a subsidy of no less than 
10,000 silver mancusi a year. Ironically, 
the mancusi in all probability were Islamic 
coins, and the papyrus used by the Pope 
for his diplomatic campaign was made in 
Egypt and bore at its top an Arab inscrip- 
tion praising Allah. Should one suggest that 
the capital of Christianity was too near the 
Islamic border to be typical of Christian 
attitudes, we might recall the friendship of 
Charlemagne and Mohammed's Successor, 
Harun al-Rashid. 3 It resulted not only in 
the foundation of an inn for pilgrims in 
Jerusalem, but also in the establishment of a 
market across the street, where the pilgrims 

2 The Aghlabids were a ninth century dynasty in 
Africa which became virtually independent [Edi- 
tor's note] 

3 Harun al-Rashid (ca. 764-809) was the most 
famous of the Abbasid caliphs and a patron of arts 
and letters under whom Bagdad reached its height. 
[Editor's note] 



by paying two dinars a year could carry on 
their business. 

Indirect proofs of the purportedly cata- 
strophic effects of the Arab expansion have 
been sought for in a supposed aggravation 
of the general symptoms of economic and 
intellectual depression in Catholic Europe. 
We cannot discuss these symptoms without 
changing our theme to a general investiga- 
tion of early mediaeval economy and cul- 
ture. Personally, I do not believe that the 
depression was more acute in the Carolin- 
gian than in the Merovingian period. The 
earlier centuries of the early middle ages 
benefited from the fact that Roman roads 
and towns, institutions and traditions had 
not entirely disintegrated, and that dis- 
heartened Roman personnel still lent a hand 
to inexperienced barbarians. The later cen- 
turies benefited from the fact that the 
further shrinking of the legacy of antiquity 
forced the new world to make its first 
clumsy attempts at reorganizing roads, 
towns, institutions and traditions with a 
personnel of mixed blood and rudimental 
training. Whether this pale dawn was better 
or worse than the previous pale dusk is 
anybody's guess: judgments on cultural 
achievements depend largely on personal 
taste, and exact economic comparisons 
between two adjoining and similar periods 
cannot be made without some statistical 
base. But even if Carolingian inferiority 
were ascertainable it could not be pinned 
a -priori on the impact of Arab invasions 
rather than on the lingering inability of the 
West to reverse an old downward trend. 

It would be still more rash to draw gen- 
eral inferences from ascertained changes of 
a limited scope. The fact that during the 
Carolingian period the ports of Provence 
and Languedoc lost trade to those of north- 
eastern and southwestern Italy, or that 
Syrian and Greek merchants in the West 
yielded their prominence to Jews and 
Scandinavians does not by itself prove a 
breakdown of Mediterranean commerce any 
more than the displacement of Seville and 
Lisbon by Antwerp and Amsterdam in the 
early modern age denotes a collapse of 

Atlantic trade. The passing of economy 
primacy from one people to another is a 
normal trait of the historical process. Again, 
the decrease and cessation of the imports of 
Palestinian wine, Egyptian papyrus and (to 
a lesser extent) some other Oriental com- 
modities does not necessarily stern from 
general difficulties in trade. Specific changes 
in taste, fashions, traditions, and methods 
of production may be responsible for a wane 
in the demand or the offer of individual 
wares. To all this I shall return very soon; 
here a passing mention of the problem will 
be sufficient. 

We still have to consider the possibility 
that trade between East and West came to 
a virtual end not because of the Arab 
invasions but owing to the gradual exhaus- 
tion of the gold and silver stocks of Catholic 
Europe. The problem has been studied by 
some of the greatest historians of the last 
generation Marc Bloch and Michael 
Rostovtzeff among others but it is still 
obscure: monetary phenomena always are 
hard to interpret, and for the early middle 
ages information is desperately scant. We 
do know that the later Roman emperors 
already expressed alarm at the double drain- 
age of currency through private hoarding 
and the export of coins or bullion to Persia, 
India, and China in exchange for luxury 
goods. To be sure, mercantilistic instincts 
and traditional dislike for extravagant ex- 
penditure and foreign manners may have 
added emphasis to their words; moreover, 
they found greedy hoarders and selfish mer- 
chants good scapegoats to share the blame 
for inflation, taxation and economic misery. 
Still, there is archaeologic confirmation of 
their claims hoards within the empire and 
Roman coins scattered through Asia. The 
Byzantine Empire made conservation of its 
stocks of precious metals a cardinal point 
of its economic policies. The stockpile had 
ups and downs, but in the early middle 
ages it never was depleted so much that 
it was not possible to maintain a stable and 
fairly abundant currency in gold, silver and 
copper. The Islamic countries were blessed 
with sensational discoveries of sold and 


East and West in the Early Middle Ages 


silver mines. Catholic Europe, however, 
fell heir to the poorer half of the formerly 
Roman territory, which had no rich mines 
and no thriving trades. Hoarding was car- 
ried out in abnormally high proportions. 
Coinage declined in quality and quantity 
until the only local currency consisted of 
puny silver deniers struck in modest 
amounts. Could this not be an indication 
that Catholic Europe had practically used 
up its precious metals and no longer had 
the means to pay for imports from the East? 

The answer is not as simple as one might 
think at first. Probably Catholic Europe 
would have been unable to carry out large 
purchases in the Byzantine and Muslim 
markets with the small amount of coinage 
it struck and maintained in circulation, or 
with the Byzantine and Muslim coins that 
war or trade channeled to its coffers. But 
there is no reason to assume that Catholic 
Europe desired to purchase more goods than 
it could easily afford. Remarkably, the lay 
and ecclesiastic lords who were the best 
potential customers of Eastern luxury goods 
also were the greatest hoarders. Their un- 
spent and cumbersome wealth lay frozen 
in bars, rings, jewels, and other artistic 
objects. From the tenth century on, when 
the revival of trade and culture caused the 
demand for Eastern goods to skyrocket, 
those treasures were melted down; nothing 
would have prevented their owners from 
melting them sooner if they had needed 
cash. Quite to the contrary, what evidence 
we have conveys the impression that hoards 
grew in size during the eighth and ninth 

There is no direct way to calculate the 
balance of payments in the trade of Catholic 
Europe with the Byzantine and Muslim 
East, but all that we know about the vast 
economic and cultural gulf which separated 
these worlds and about the goods which 
were prevalent in the exchanges between 
them enables us to venture a guess. In all 
probability early mediaeval Europe, with its 
rude society of affluent lords and penniless 
peasants, behaved towards the refined and 
complex societies of Byzantium and Islam 

like any other backward country that does 
not crave for many outlandish manufactured 
goods and has an excess of raw materials 
available for export. Ordinarily in such cases 
the balance of payments is favorable to 
the backward country. The more advanced 
nations have to offset their commercial 
deficit by remitting gold and silver, unless 
they are ready to tip the scales with the 
sword and impose upon the "inferior" or 
"infidel" race some sort of tributary or 
colonial regime. The latter method was not 
unknown in the early middle ages; Byzan- 
tine fiscality and Arab raids often extorted 
from one or another underdeveloped and 
weak European country many goods for 
which no adequate payment was offered. 
But the Venetians and the Vikings, the 
Franks and the Jews were too strong or too 
crafty to yield to sheer force. They must 
have been paid good cash. 

Any guess is open to challenge. Let us 
assume that our guess was wrong, and that 
Catholic Europe for a few centuries or for 
the whole duration of the early middle 
ages exported cash to pay for the Oriental 
commodities it wanted to import; would this 
force us to postulate that its stock of 
precious metals was eventually exhausted? 
I do not believe it would. The quantities 
involved were so small that the local pro- 
duction of gold and silver was more than 
enough to meet the current demand without 
drawing from the reserve. A certain amount 
of silver, it is true, had to be set aside for 
the striking of deniers; gold, however, was 
not used by Western mints except for 
occasional emissions of ceremonial coins or 
for imitations of Byzantine and Islamic 
coins. The rest was available for hoarding, 
adornment and foreign trade. The same 
princes and prelates who handed out so 
much gold to smiths in order to have goblets 
and reliquaries could well deliver gold to 
merchants in exchange for Oriental spices 
and perfumes. Their purchases would have 
sufficed to keep trade with the East going 
a small trickle, perhaps, but a stirring, 
incessant reminder to provincial and coun- 
trified Europe that there were other worlds 



with a quicker, broader and richer way of 

Eventually not economic stagnation, but 
economic growth made the monetary stock 
of Europe inadequate. In the tenth century 
the laborious search for gold in the Italian, 
French and German rivers was intensified, 
and the discovery of rich silver mines near 
Goslar 4 started a "silver rush" of consider- 

4 Goslar is in central Germany, at the northern 
edge of the Harz Mountains. [Editor's note] 

able proportions. Yet we have good reasons 
to believe that the exports of Catholic 
Europe to the Eastern world were increas- 
ing. We have to use the richer evidence of 
the tenth century to supplement that of 
earlier centuries on which so little is known, 
but we ought to remember that a new era 
was already in the making, and that early 
mediaeval stagnation was about to yield to 
the Commercial Revolution of the later 
middle ages. 



Educated at Stanford and Harvard, Lynn White, Jr., taught history 
at Princeton and Stanford before becoming president of Mills College 
in 1943. As a historian one of his areas of research has been the badly 
neglected field of medieval technology; the article, excerpted below, 
received wide attention. Dr. White was interested not so much in ques- 
tioning the Pirenne Thesis as in suggesting that in agricultural improve- 
ments there is a parallel explanation for the transference of European 
Civilization from the Mediterranean to the North. 

E HISTORY of technology and inven- 
ion, especially that of the earlier 
periods, has been left strangely unculti- 
vated. Our vast technical institutes continue 
at an ever-accelerating pace to revolutionize 
the world we live in; yet small effort is 
being made to place our present technology 
in the time-sequence, or to give to our 
technicians that sense of their social respon- 
sibility which can only come from an exact 
understanding of their historical function 
one might almost say, of their apostolic 
succession. By permitting those who work 
in shops and laboratories to forget the past, 
we have impoverished the present and en- 
dangered the future. In the United States 
this neglect is the less excusable because we 
Americans boast of being the most techni- 
cally progressive people of an inventive age. 
But when the historian of American tech- 
nology tries to probe the medieval and 
renaissance roots of his subject he runs into 
difficulties: the materials available to him 
are scanty and often questionable; for pro- 
fessional mediaevalists have left unrnined 
this vein in the centuries on which they 
have staked their claim. . . . 

Perhaps the chief reason why scholars 
have been hesitant to explore the subject is 
the difficulty of delimiting its boundaries: 
technology knows neither chronological nor 
geographic frontiers. 

The student of the history of invention 
soon discovers that he must smash the con- 
ventional barriers between Greek and bar- 
barian, Roman and German, oriental and 
occidental. For mediaeval technology is 
found to consist not simply of the technical 
equipment inherited from the Roman- 
Hellenistic world modified by the inventive 
ingenuity of the western peoples, but also 
of elements derived from three outside 
sources: the northern barbarians, the By- 
zantine and Moslem Near East, and the 
Far East. 

The importance of the first of these, the 
barbarian influence, has been far too little 
understood even by those who have dabbled 
in the history of technology. Students of 
the fine arts have only recently led the way 
towards an appreciation of the essential 
unity and originality of that vast northern 
world of so-called "barbarians" which, in 
ancient times, had its focal point on the 

From Lynn White, Jr., "Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages," Speculum, XV (April 1940), 
pp. 141, 143-144, 149-150, 151-156. By permission of Tne Medieval Academy o America, Cam- 
bridge, Mass. 




plains of Russia and of Western Siberia, 
but which extended from the Altai Moun- 
tains to Ireland: we are beginning to learn 
how profoundly it affected the aesthetic 
expressions of the Middle Ages. But even 
before the Germanic migrations, these bar- 
barians had begun to influence Roman 
technology, and in later centuries they con- 
tributed many distinctive ingredients to 
mediaeval life: trousers and the habit of 
wearing furs, the easily-heated compact 
house as contrasted with the Mediterranean 
patio-house, cloisonne jewelry, feltmaking, 
the ski, the use of soap for cleansing, and 
of butter in place of olive oil, the making 
of barrels and tubs, the cultivation of rye, 
oats, spelt, and hops, perhaps the sport of 
falconry and certain elements of the num- 
ber-system. Above all, the great plains in- 
vented the stirrup, which made the horse 
etymologically responsible for chivalry, and, 
perhaps even more important, the heavy 
plow which, as we shall see, is the tech- 
nological basis of the typical mediaeval 
manor. . . . 

The student of European technics, then, 
is compelled to follow his subject far be- 
yond the usual geographical limits of medi- 
aeval research. Similarly he finds that for 
his purposes the customary tripartite divi- 
sion of history into ancient, mediaeval and 
modern is completely arbitrary. In particu- 
lar he finds no evidence of a break in the 
continuity of technological development 
following the decline of the Western Ro- 
man Empire. 

The Dark Ages doubtless deserve their 
name : political disintegration, economic de- 
pression, the debasement of religion and the 
collapse of literature surely made the bar- 
barian kingdoms in some ways unimagin- 
ably dismal. Yet because many aspects of 
civilization were in decay we should not 
assume too quickly that everything was 
back-sliding. Even an apparent coarsening 
may indicate merely a shift of interest: in 
modern painting we recognize that Van 
Gogh's technical methods were not those 
of David; so, when we contrast a Hellenis- 
tic carved gem with a Merovingian enamel, 

our judgment should be cautious. Few will 
dispute that the Irish illumination and the 
Scandinavian jewelry of the seventh and 
eighth centuries stand among the supreme 
arts of all time; yet they are far from classi- 
cal canons of taste, being rooted in an an- 

7 o 

cient, and quite separate, tradition of 
Northern art. So in the history of tech- 
nology we must be discriminating. Chang- 
ing tastes and conditions may lead to the 
degeneration of one technique while the 
technology of the age as a whole is advanc- 
ing. The technology of torture, for exam- 
ple, which achieved such hair-raising per- 
fection during the Renaissance, is now 
happily in eclipse: viewed historically, our 
modem American "third degree" is barbaric 
only in its simplicity. 

Indeed, a dark age may stimulate rather 
than hinder technology. Economic catastro- 
phe in the United States during the past 
decade has done nothing to halt invention 
quite the contrary; and it is a common- 
place that war encourages technological 
advance. Confusion and depression, which 
bring havoc in so many areas of life, may 
have just the opposite effect on technics. 
And the chances of this are particularly 
good in a period of general migration, when 
peoples of diverse backgrounds and in- 
heritances are mixing. 

There is, in fact, no proof that any im- 
portant skills of the Graeco-Roman world 
were lost during the Dark Ages even in 
the unenlightened West, much less in the 
flourishing Byzantine and Saracenic Orient. 
To be sure, the diminished wealth and 
power of the Germanic kings made engi- 
neering on the old Roman scale infrequent; 
yet the full technology of antiquity was 
available when required: the 276-ton mon- 
olith which crowns the tomb of Theodoric 
the Ostrogoth was brought to Ravenna 
from Istria; while more than two centuries 
later Charlemagne transported not only 
sizable columns but even a great equestrian 
statue of Zeno from Ravenna across the 
Alps to Aachen. Incidentally, we should 
do well to remember that the northern 
peoples from remote times were capable of 

Technology and Invention in the Middle Aes 


managing great weights, as witness Stone- 
henge and the dolmens. . . . 

Indeed, the technical skill of classical 
times was not simply maintained: it was 
considerably improved. Our view of history 
has heen too top-lofty. We have been daz- 
zled by aspects of civilization which are in 
every age the property of an elite, and in 
which the common man, with rare excep- 
tions, has had little part. The so-called 
"higher" realms of culture might decay, 
government might fall into anarchy, and 
trade be reduced to a trickle, but through 
it all, in the fact of turmoil and hard times, 
the peasant and artisan carried on, and 
even improved their lot. In technology, at 
least, the Dark Ages mark a steady and 
uninterrupted advance over the Roman 
Empire. Evidence is accumulating to show 
that a serf in the turbulent and insecure 
tenth century enjoyed a standard of living 
considerably higher than that of a prole- 
tarian in the reign of Augustus. 

The basic occupation was, of course, 
agriculture. We have passed through at 
least two agricultural revolutions: that 
which began with "Turnip" Townshend 
and Jethro Tull in the early eighteenth 
century, and another, equally important, in 
the Dark Ages. 

The problem of the development and 
diffusion of the northern wheeled plow, 
equipped with colter, horizontal share and 
moldboard, is too thorny to be discussed 
here. Experts seem generally agreed: (1) 
that the new plow greatly increased pro- 
duction by making possible the tillage of 
rich, heavy, badly-drained river-bottom 
soils; (2) that it saved labor by making 
cross-plowing superfluous, and thus pro- 
duced the typical northern strip-system of 
land division, as distinct from the older 
block-system dictated by the cross-plowing 
necessary with the lighter Mediterranean 
plow; (3) most important of all, that the 
heavy plow needed such power that peas- 
ants pooled their oxen and plowed together, 
thus laying the basis for the mediaeval 
cooperative agricultural community, the 
manor. But whatever may be the date and 

origin of the fully developed heavy plow, 
its effects were supplemented and 'greatly 
enhanced in the later eighth century by 
the invention of the three-field system, an 
improved rotation of crops and fallow 
which greatly increased the efficiency of 
agricultural labor. For example, by switch- 
ing 600 acres from the two-field to the 
three-field system, a community of peasants 
could plant 100 acres more in crops each 
year with 100 acres less of plowing. Since 
fallow land was plowed twice to keep down 
the weeds, the old plan required three acres 
of plowing for every acre in crops, whereas 
the new plan required only two acres of 
plowing for every productive acre. 

In a society overwhelmingly agrarian, 
the result of such an innovation could be 
nothing less than revolutionary. Pirenne is 
only the most recent of many historians to 
speculate as to why the reign of Charle- 
magne witnessed the shift of the center of 
European civilization, the change of the 
focus of history, from the Mediterranean 
to the plains of Northern Europe. The 
findings of agricultural history, it seems, 
have never been applied to this central 
problem in the study of the growth of the 
northern races. Since the spring sowing, 
which was the chief novelty of the three- 
field system, was unprofitable in the south 
because of the scarcity of summer rains, the 
three-field system did not spread below the 
Alps and Loire, For obvious reasons of 
climate the agricultural revolution of the 
eighth century was confined to Northern 
Europe. It would appear, therefore, that it 
was this more efficient and productive use 
of land and labor which gave to the north- 
ern plains an economic advantage over the 
Mediterranean shores, and which, from 
Charlemagne's time onward, enabled the 
Northern Europeans in short order to sur- 
pass both in prosperity and in culture the 
peoples of an older inheritance* 

In ways less immediately significant the 
Dark Ages likewise made ingenious im- 
provements. One of the most important of 
these was a contribution to practical me- 
chanics. There are two basic forms of mo- 



tion: reciprocal and rotary. The normal 
device for connecting these a device with- 
out which our machine civilization is in- 
conceivable is the crank. The crank is an 
invention second in importance only to the 
wheel itself; yet the crank was unknown to 
the Greeks and the Romans. It appears, 
even in rudimentary form, only after the 
Invasions: first, perhaps, in hand-querns, 
then on rotary grindstones. The later Mid- 
dle Ages developed its application to all 
sorts of machinery. 

Clearly there are nuggets in this stream 
for anyone to find. Perhaps the most suc- 
cessful amateur student of early mediaeval 
technology was the Commandant Lefebvre 
des Noettes, who after his retirement from 
active service in the French cavalry, de- 
voted himself to his hobby, the history of 
horses. He died in 1936, having made dis- 
coveries which must greatly modify our 
judgment of the Carolingian period. From 
his investigations Lefebvre des Noettes con- 
cluded that the use of animal pow r er in 
antiquity was unbelievably inefficient. The 
ancients did not use nailed shoes on their 
animals, and broken hooves often rendered 
beasts useless. Besides, they knew only the 
yoke-system of harness. While this was ade- 
quate for oxen, it was most unsatisfactory 
for the more rapid horse. The yoke rested 
on the withers of a team. From each end 
of the yoke ran two flexible straps: one a 
girth behind the forelegs, the other circling 
the horse's neck. As soon as the horse be- 
gan to pull, the flexible front strap pressed 
on his windpipe, and the harder he pulled 
the closer he came to strangulation. More- 
over the ancient harness was mechanically 
defective: the yoke was too high to permit 
the horse to exert his full force in pulling 
by flinging his body-weight into the task. 
Finally, the ancients were unable to har- 
ness one animal in front of another. Thus 

all great weights had to be drawnn bv gangs 
r 7 i > 5 e> 

or slaves, since animal power was not tech- 
nically available in sufficient quantities. 

According to Lefebvre des Noettes this 
condition remained unchanged until the 
later ninth or early tenth century when, 

almost simultaneously, three major inven- 
tions appear: the modern horse-collar, the 
tandem harness, and the horseshoe. The 
modern harness, consisting of a rigid horse- 
collar resting on the shoulders of the beast, 
permitted him to breathe freely. This was 
connected to the load by lateral traces 
which enabled the horse to throw his whole 
body into pulling. It has been shown ex- 
perimentally that this new 7 apparatus so 
greatly increased the effective animal power 
that a team which can pull only about one 
thousand pounds with the antique yoke 
can pull three or four times that weight 
when equipped with the new harness. 
Equally important was the extension of the 
traces so that tandem harnessing w r as possi- 
ble, thus providing an indefinite amount 
of animal power for the transport of great 
weights. Finally, the introduction of the 
nailed horseshoe improved traction and 
greatly increased the endurance of the 
newly available animal power. Taken to- 
gether these three inventions suddenly gave 
Europe a new supply of non-human power, 
at no increase of expense or labor. They did 
for the eleventh and twelfth centuries w 7 hat 
the steam-engine did for the nineteenth. 
Lefebvre des Noettes has therefore offered 
an unexpected and plausible solution for 
the most puzzling problem of the Middle 
Ages: the sudden upswing of European 
vitality after the year 1000. 

However, Lefebvre des Noettes failed to 
point out the relation between this access 
of energy and the contemporary agricul- 
tural revolution. He noted that the new 
harness made the horse available for agri- 
cultural labor: the first picture of a horse 
so engaged is found in the Bayeux Tapes- 
try. But while the horse is a rapid and 
efficient power engine, it burns an expen- 
sive f uel grain as compared with the 
slow r er, but cheaper, hay-burning ox. Under 
the two-field system the peasants' margin 
of production was insufficient to support a 
work-horse; under the three-field system the 
horse gradually displaced the ox as the 
normal plow and draft animal of the north- 
ern plains. By the later Middle Ages there 

Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages 


is a clear correlation on the one hand be- 
tween the horse and the three-field system 
and on the other between the ox and the 
two-field system. The contrast is essentially 
one between the standards of living and of 
labor-productivity of the northern and the 
southern peasantry: the ox saves food; the 
horse saves man-hours. The new agricul- 
ture, therefore, enabled the north to exploit 
the new power more effectively than the 
Mediterranean regions could, and thereby 
the northerners increased their prosperity 
still further. 

Naturally Lefebvre des Noettes made 
mistakes: only when his work receives the 
recognition it deserves will these be recti- 
fied. His use of the monuments is not im- 
peccable; his almost exclusive concern with 
pictures led him to neglect the texts, par- 
ticularly Pliny s assertion that at times Ital- 
ian peasants (presumably in the Po valley) 
plowed with several yokes of oxen; and he 
overlooks the complex question of the eight- 
ox plow-team as a basis for land division in 
pre-Carolingian times. Moreover an ety- 
mologist has recently shown that the word 
for "horse-collar" in the Teutonic and 
Slavic tongues (English: hames) is derived 
from Central-Asiatic sources, implying a 
diffusion of the modern harness westward 
from the nomadic steppe-culture. Doubt- 
less criticism will eventually show that 
Lefebvre des Noettes' three inventions 
developed rather more slowly than he 
thought. But that they grew and spread 
during the Dark Ages, and that they pro- 
foundly affected European society, seems 
already proved, . . . 

The cumulative effect of the newly avail- 
able animal, water, and wind power upon 
the culture of Europe has not been care- 
fully studied. But from the twelfth and 
even from the eleventh, century there was 

a rapid replacement of human by non- 
human energy wherever great quantities of 
power were needed or where the required 
motion was so simple and monotonous that 
a man could be replaced by a mechanism. 
The chief glory of the later Middle Ages 
was not its cathedrals or its epics or its 
scholasticism: it was the building for the 
first time in history of a complex civilization 
which rested not on the backs of sweating 
slaves or coolies but primarily on non- 
human power. 

The study of mediaeval technology is 
therefore far more than an aspect of eco- 
nomic history: it reveals a chapter in the 
conquest of freedom. More than that, it is 
a part of the history of religion. The hu- 
manitarian technology which our modern 
world has inherited from the Middle Ages 
was not rooted in economic necessity; for 
this "necessity" is inherent in ever} 7 society, 
yet has found inventive expression only in 
the Occident, nurtured in the activist or 
voluntarist tradition of Western theology. 
It is ideas which make necessity conscious. 
The labor-saving power-machines of the 
later Middle Ages were produced by the 
implicit theological assumption of the infi- 
nite worth of even the most degraded hu- 
man personality, by an instinctive repug- 
nance towards subjecting any man to a 
monotonous drudgery which seems less 
than human in that it requires the exercise 
neither of intelligence nor of choice. It has 
often been remarked that the Latin Middle 
Ages first discovered the dignity and spir- 
itual value of labor that to labor is to 
pray. But the Middle Ages went further: 
they gradually and very slowly began to 
explore the practical implications of an es- 
sentially Christian paradox: that just as the 
Heavenly Jerusalem contains no temple, so 
the goal of labor is to end labor. 



Editorial note attached to the article in Speculum: "The author of 
this article was killed when the plane in which he was travelling on govern- 
ment service crashed over Ethiopia on 22 March 1947. An able scholar, 
expert in the languages and history of the Near East, Dr. Dennett had 
served as instructor in history at Harvard previous to his appointment 
in 1942 as Cultural Relations Attache at the American Legation in Beirut, 
a post he held until his untimely death at the age of thirty-seven." 

HENRI PIRENNE summarized the re- 
sults of a distinguished career in 
his last work, Mohammed and Charle- 
magne (New York, 1939), published post- 
humously by his executors and unfortu- 
nately without revision by author. In this 
book, which restates without appreciable 
alteration, despite wide and sometimes bit- 
ter controversy, the conclusions reached in 
a series of well-known articles, the author 
sets forth the following thesis: 

Because the Germanic invaders had 
neither the desire, nor the unity of purpose, 
to destroy the Roman Empire, "Romania" 
existed as both concept and fact for more 
than two centuries after 476. The Emperor 
had abdicated nothing of his universal sov- 
ereignty and the barbarian rulers of the 
West acknowledged his primacy. Thus "the 
Empire subsisted, in law, as a sort of mys- 
tical presence; in fact and this is much 
more important it was 'Romania' that 
survived." Inasmuch as the invaders repre- 
sented a bare five per cent of the popula- 
tion, they were Romanized. The language 
of Gaul was Latin, the system of govern- 
ment and administration remained un- 
changed, Roman law still survived, the 
Empire was the only world power and its 
foreign policy embraced all Europe, with 

the result that the only positive element in 
history was the influence of the Empire 
which "continued to be Roman, just as the 
United States of North America, despite 
immigration, have remained Anglo Saxon." 

The best proof of the persistence of Ro- 
mania is to be found in the flourishing 
commerce of Gaul to which Syrian traders 
on the free Mediterranean brought the 
spices of the Orient, the wines of Gaza, the 
papyrus of Egypt, and the oil of North 
Africa. This commerce played a crucial role 
in the economic, social, and political life of 
Gaul, which was chiefly supported by its 
influence. Nor was it small commerce, 
since "I think we may say that navigation 
was at least as active as under the Empire." 
Because of it, the monetary system of the 
barbarians was that of Rome, and the cur- 
rency was gold in contrast to the system of 
silver monometallism which was that of the 
Middle Ages. 

The Muslim expansion in the seventh 
century placed two hostile civilizations on 
the Mediterranean, and "the sea which had 
hitherto been the centre of Christianity be- 
came its frontier. The Mediterranean unity 
was shattered.". . . This was the most essen- 
tial event of European history that had 
occurred since the Punic Wars. It was the 

From Daniel C. Dennett, Jr., "Pirenne and Muhammad," Speculum, XXHI (April, 1948), pp. 165- 
190. By permission of The Medieval Academy of America, Cambridge, Mass. [Dr. Dennett's exten- 
sive documentation, save for a few references for quotations, has been omitted.l 


Pirenne and Muhammad 


end of the classic tradition. It was the be- 
ginning of the Middle Ages." The sea was 
closed to Gaul about the year 650, since the 
first raid on Sicily came two years later. 
As a result, the last text mentioning oils 
and spices is dated 716 and may be a hasty 
recopy of a charter of 673-675. There is not 
a single mention of spices in any document 
of the Carolingian period. The wines of 
Gaza and the papyrus of Egypt disappeared, 
silk was entirely unknown, and North Afri- 
can oil was cut off, with the result that 
churches turned from lamps to candles. 
The coinage was debased and gold yielded 
to silver. The Merovingian merchant, de- 
fined as a negotiator who "lent money at 
interest, was buried in a sarcophagus, and 
gave of his goods to the churches and the 
poor," ceased to exist. 

Inasmuch as Pirenne has based his en- 
tire thesis on the influence of commerce, 
he is compelled to give a somewhat novel 
explanation of the political disintegration 
of Merovingian Gaul under the rois 
faineants. He argues that the commercial 
decline due to the Arabs began about the 
year 650, that this epoch corresponds almost 
exactly with the progress of anarchy in 
Gaul, that the only source of the king's 
power was money, money which was de- 
rived in largest measure from the indirect 
taxes (tonlieu) on commerce, that the royal 
power, weakened by loss of revenue, had 
to compromise with the church and the 
nobility, that immunities were therefore not 
the cause of the king's weakness but in 
reality were a consequence of it, and that 
thus the progress of Islam destroyed the 

Furthermore, the shattering of Mediter- 
ranean unity restricted the authority of the 
Pope to Western Europe, and the conquest 
of Spain and Africa by the Arabs left the 
king of the Franks the master of the Chris- 
tian Occident. This king was the only tem- 
poral authority to whom the Pope could 
turn, and therefore "it is strictly correct to 
say that without Mohammed, Charlemagne 
would have been inconceivable." 

In summation, "If we consider that in 

the Carolingian epoch the minting of gold 
had ceased, that lending money at interest 
was prohibited, that there was 'no longer a 
class of professional merchants, that Orien- 
tal products (papyrus, spices, silk) were no 
longer imported, that the circulation of 
money was reduced to the minimum, that 
laymen could no longer read and write, 
that the taxes were no longer organized, 
and that the towns were merely fortresses, 
we can say without hesitation that we are 
confronted with a civilization which had 
retrogressed to the purely agricultural stage; 
which no longer needed commerce, credit, 
and regular exchange for the maintenance 
of the social fabric." The Muslim conquest 
had transformed the economic world from 
the money economy of the Merovingians 
to the natural economy of the Middle Ages. 
A critic of Pirenne's theses must begin by 
asking the following six questions: 

1. Was it the policy and the practice of 
the Arabs to prohibit commerce either at 
its source or on the normal trade routes of 
the Mediterranean? Can we indicate an 
approximate date, accurate within twenty- 
five years, for the ending of commerce 
between the Christian Occident and the 

2. Is it possible to find another explana- 
tion for the disappearance of the wines of 
Gaza, the papyrus of Egypt, and the spices 
of the Orient? 

3. Is it true that Gaul had no apprecia- 
ble foreign commerce after the beginning 
of the Carolingian period? 

4. Is it true that the civilization of Mer- 
ovingian Gaul, considered in its broadest 
social and political aspects, was determined 
by trade? Is it possible that internal factors 
conversely may have been of importance in 
determining the prosperity of industry and 
trade? How extensive was Mediterranean 
commerce before 650? 

5. Was "Romania" in fact a true cul- 
tural unity of ideas, law, language, foreign 
policy, common interest"? 

6. What is the real significance and true 
cause of the transition from a gold to a 
silver coinage? 



We must affirm that neither in the 
Koran, nor in the sayings of the Prophet, 
nor in the acts of the first caliphs, nor in the 
opinions of Muslim jurists is there any pro- 
hibition against trading with the Christians 
or unbelievers. Before Muhammad, the 
Arabs of the desert lived by their flocks and 
those of the town by their commerce. To 
these two sources of livelihood the conquest 
added the income of empire and the yield 
of agriculture, but the mercantile career 
remained the goal of many, as the caravan 
still crossed the desert and the trading vessel 
skirted the coast line of the Red Sea, the 
Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. 
Pirenne had asserted that "it is a proven 
fact that the Musulman traders did not 
instal themselves beyond the frontiers of 
Islam. If they did trade, they did so among 
themselves." This statement is a serious 
misrepresentation of fact. Arab merchants 
had established trading colonies which 
were centers not only for the exchange of 
goods but the propagation of the faith in 
India, Ceylon, the East Indies, and even 
China, by the close of the eighth century, 
and if one wishes to know why they did not 
establish similar centers in Gaul, let him 
ask the question would Charlemagne 
have permitted a mosque in Marseilles? 

In this respect the Muslims themselves 
were more tolerant and placed few obsta- 
cles in the path of Christian traders who 
came to their territory. Within the lands 
that had formerly submitted to the Em- 
peror, the Christians were now subjects of 
the Muslim state, yet they were protected 
by law, and in return for the pavment of 
their taxes and the discharge of obligations 
stipulated in the original terms of capitula- 
tion, they were specifically and formally 
guaranteed the freedom of Christian wor- 
ship, the jurisdiction of Christian bishops 
in cases not involving Muslims, and the 
pursuit of trades and professions. The civil 
service and the language of administration 
remained Greek, and Arabic did not uni- 
versally displace Greek in the government 
bureaus until the end of the first century 

following the conquest. In Egypt, at least, 
the change of rule brought an improvement 
in the social and economic life of the popu- 
lation, and the church of Alexandria en- 
joyed a liberty of faith which it had hitherto 
not experienced. 

In consideration of the fact that it has 
formerly been believed that internal causes 
produced a decline of industry and trade 
in Gaul, the burden of proof in Pirenne' s 
thesis must show that the Arab raids were 
of a frequency and intensity in themselves 
to destroy the commerce of the western 
Mediterranean. It is not a just argument 
merely to assert that these raids were dis- 
astrous because commerce in Gaul declined. 
We have already noticed that in order to 
connect the decline of the Merovingian 
monarchy with the activity of the Arabs, 
Pirenne has been obliged to assign the date 
650 as that point when Arab naval activity 
became formidable. What are the facts? 

There may have been a raid on Sicily in 
652. We are told that it was led by Muawia 
ibn Hudaij and resulted in taking much 
booty 7 from unfortified places, but was 
called off when plague threatened the in- 
vaders. As Amari shows, there is a great 
deal of confusion among the Muslim 
authorities both as to the date (for an 
alternative, 664 A.D. is given), as to the 
leader (since it is highly probable that not 
Muawia but his lieutenant Abdallah ibn 
Qais commanded the actual expedition), 
and as to the port of embarkation (either 
Tripoli in Syria or Barka in North Africa). 
Becker does not accept the date 652 and 
argues that the first raid took place only in 
664, but it is possible that there were two 
different expeditions, one in 652, the sec- 
ond in 664. 1 

Three years after the presumed earliest 
assault on Sicily, the Emperor Cons tans II, 
in 655, received a serious blow to his pres- 
tige when the Byzantine fleet was beaten 
in the Aegean by the new Muslim navy in 

1 Amari is an Italian historian and C. H. Becker 
was Professor of Oriental History in the Colonial 
Institute o Hamburg. Dennett's references to 
their writings have been omitted. [Editor's note] 

Pirenne and Muhammad 


the first real test of sea power. The Arabs 
did not follow up their victory, but its con- 
sequence demonstrated to the Emperor the 
need for a vigorous naval policy, for, al- 
though Constantinople and the straits 
might be held against siege, the strategi- 
cally vulnerable point of the Empire was 
not in the Aegean, but in the West, since 
(as events were to show two centuries later) 
once the enemy had a base in Sicily, South 
Italy would then be within easy grasp, and 
if South Italy were securely held, only im- 
mense naval exertions could protect Greece 
proper, and if Greece fell under Muslim 
control, a combined blockade by land and 
sea of the imperial city would be possible. 
Bury 2 holds that this consideration, the 
guarding of the rear against attack from the 
West, was a strong motive in inducing 
Constans to concentrate naval power in the 
West and to go himself to Sicily in 662, 
where he reigned for six years until his 
assassination in 668. 

The Arabs took advantage of the chaos 
following the assassination to raid the coasts 
of Sicily the next year, but when order 
was reestablished Sicily remained at peace 
again for thirty-five years. 

Meanwhile the Greek fleet itself was far 
from inactive, raiding Egypt in 673 and, in 
a successful attack on Barka in 689, putting 
the Arabs to rout in which the governor of 
North Africa, Zuheir ibn Qais, perished. 
Early attempts to take Carthage were frus- 
trated because the Greeks had control of 
the seas, and the city fell in 698 only be- 
cause the Arabs had constructed a fleet for 
the purpose and the Greek naval force was 
in the Aegean. Following Bury's argument, 
if the Emperor had established a permanent 
naval base at Carthage, the city would 
never have been taken. 

Therefore, in view of the facts that the 
Arabs made only two, (possibly three) 
raids on Sicily before 700, that these raids 
resulted in a vigorous naval policy of the 
Greeks in the West, that it was not until 

2 J. B. Bury (d. 1927) was a distinguished British 
historian, an authority on the later Roman Empire 
and the Byzantine era, [Editor's note] 

698 that the Arabs had a fleet strong 
enough to operate at Carthage, and that 
they had not yet seized the straits of Gibral- 
tar or occupied Spain, we are bound to 
acknowledge the absence of any evidence 
to indicate the closing of the Mediterra- 
nean thereby weakening the basis of royal 
power in Gaul before 700. Pirenne himself 
acknowledges this fact by admitting that 
spices and papyrus could be procured by the 
monks of Corbie in 716. Indeed, anyone 
who reads Pirenne closely will notice 'that 
he is careless with chronology and mentions 
results which were produced by the Arab 
conquest as beginning at various points 
within a period of 150 years. 

What progress was made in the eighth 
century? In 700 the Arabs took Pantellaria 
and constructed a naval base in Tunis with 
the intention of undertaking the conquest 
of Sicily, but after some preliminary raids 
in 703-705, for the purpose of reconnoiter- 
ing, the new governor, Musa ibn Nusair, 
turned westwards and launched a campaign 
which was to culminate in the Spanish con- 
quest, begun in 711. 

Papyri dated 710 to 718 give us consider- 
able information about ship building in the 
Nile delta, where vessels were constructed 
for service not only in Egypt but in the 
West and in Syria as well, and mention 
raids of which, unfortunately, we know 
neither the destination nor the results. We 
do not know of any raids against Sicily 
until 720. Thereafter there were attacks in 
727, 728, 730, 732, and 734. It must be 
emphasized that these were not attempts at 
conquest nor were they successful against 
fortified ports. A raid in 740 was recalled 
when civil war, due to tribal and religious 
factions, broke out throughout the entire 
territory under Muslim sway, a war which 
ended all hopes of an Arab offensive and 
resulted in the destruction of the Umayyad 
Caliphate at Damascus. In the meantime 
the Greek fleet led attacks on Egypt in 720 
and 739, won a naval victory in 736, and 
annihilated the principal Arab force off 
Cyprus in 747. Only three Arab ships 
escaped this disaster. 


After 751 the new Arab capital was 700 
miles from the sea, and the Abbasids ne- 
glected the navy. Spain became independ- 
ent under a rival Umayyad, and the politi- 
cal control of North Africa weakened sensi- 
bly. Henceforth naval operations could be 
undertaken only by virtually independent 
governors who lacked the organization and 
collective resources of the Caliphate. A last 
abortive assault on Sicily in 752-753 was 
frustrated by the Greek fleet. A fifty years 
peace followed, perpetuated in 805 in a 
treaty signed by Ibrahim ibn Aghlab for a 
term of ten years and renewed by his son 
for a similar period in 813. The Arab con- 
quest of Sicily did not commence until 
827 and then only on invitation of a rebel 
Greek who had assassinated the governor. 


Sardinia was first raided in 710 and Cor- 
sica in 713. The Arab control of the latter 
ended with its reconquest by Charlemagne 
in 774, and the Arab occupation of Sardinia 
was never complete. We have no evidence 
that these islands were used as bases for 
raids on commerce. 

Pirenne grants that after 717 there was 
no question of Arab superiority in the 
Aegean but argues that before that time 
Arab naval activity had serious conse- 
quences. We have already noted that dur- 
ing the seventh century the Greeks for 
much of the time were sure enough of their 
Aegean position to conduct raids against 
Egypt and North Africa and to operate 
in the West. Let us review briefly the 

In 655, an Arab fleet routed the Greeks 
led by Constans II. This was the first and 
only important naval defeat. The following 
year the caliph Uthman was murdered, and 
in the ensuing struggle for power between 
Ali and Muawia, the latter, to secure his 
rear and the Syrian coasts against a Greek 
assault, entered into an arrangement in 659 
with the Emperor by which he agreed to 
pay tribute. In 666, according to The- 
ophanes, 3 the Mardaites, an unconquered 

3 Theophanes, 758817, a Byzantine chronicler. 
[Editor's note] 

people inhabiting the Amanus mountains 
in Northwest Syria, broke out in a series of 
attacks which secured for them all the stra- 
tegic points from northern Syria to Pales- 
tine. It is presumed that Muawia, after 
being recognized as caliph, had ceased to 
pay tribute, but this new situation made it 
impossible to defend the Syrian ports 
should the Greek fleet determine to attack, 
and again the caliph, to secure his position, 
resumed the payment of tribute. 

During the years 674-680 men witnessed 
the first "siege" of Constantinople. The 
Arab fleet established a winter base at Cyzi- 
cus in the Propontis and raided the Aegean 
in the summer. We have no evidence that 
their operations severed communications 
between Constantinople and the West, 
which could be maintained by land any- 
way, and trade with the East was still pos- 
sible via the Black Sea port of Trebizond. 

Armenia during the Sassanid rule of 
Persia was obligatory neutral territory for 
the exchange of goods between East and 
West, inasmuch as a national of the one 
country was prohibited from setting foot on 
the territory of the other. Trebizond on the 
Black Sea was the port of entry, and Dwin, 
among other towns, was a principal mart 
of the interior. After the Muslim conquest, 
Armenia, the friend of the Greeks and the 
vassal of the Arabs, continued to remain a 
center for the exchange of goods. 

In 685, Abdul Malik, faced with a civil 
war in Iraq, resumed payment of the trib- 
ute of Muawia to protect his western flank, 
and the agreement was renewed for a five 
year period in 688 with the condition, 
among others, that the tribute from the 
island of Cyprus, which had been recov- 
ered by the Greeks, should be equally di- 
vided between the Greeks and the Arabs. 
The truce was violated in 691-692 by the 
Emperor when he declined to accept the 
new Arab coinage and violated the Cyprus 
convention. The last great assault on Con- 
stantinople was the siege of 716-718. 
Greek fire terrified the enemy, and the fail- 
ure of the Arab fleet to provision the be- 
siegers resulted in catastrophe. Only five 

Pirenne and Muhammad 


Muslim vessels escaped destruction and but 
a remnant of the army reached Syria. 

When we consider that the three at- 
tempts on Constantinople all failed, that 
only during the years 774-780 did a Mus- 
lim fleet dominate the Aegean, that the 
Greeks had recovered Cyprus, and that for 
long periods the two most powerful caliphs, 
Muawia and Abdul Malik, paid tribute to 
the Greeks to preserve the Syrian ports 
from attack, we are not justified in saying 
that Arab naval supremacy broke up the 
Greek lines of communication in the 
Aegean during the seventh century. 

Finally, let us consider the possibility 
that Gaul was cut off from the East by 
military occupation. 

The Arabs crossed the Pyrenees in 720, 
occupied Narbonne, and controlled the ex- 
treme southern part of the country border- 
ing on the Mediterranean Septimania. In 
726 they occupied Carcassonne. The next 
great advance, coming in 732, was turned 
back by Charles Martel in the celebrated 
battle of Tours. In 736 they reached the 
Rhone for the first time at Aries and Avig- 
non but were hurled back the next year by 
Charles. We have already mentioned the 
period of chaos after 740 which shelved all 
plans of aggression; when domestic order 
was restored, a new power existed in Gaul; 
Pippin recaptured Narbonne in 759. 
Pirenne himself says, "This victory marks, 
if not the end of the expeditions against 
Provence, at least the end of the Musulman 
expansion in the West of Europe/' Charle- 
magne, as is well known, carried the war 
with indifferent success across the Pyre- 
nees, but the Arabs did not again renew 
their assaults until after his death. In 848 
they raided Marseilles for the first time, 
and later, spreading out from the base at 
Fraxinetum, pushed into Switzerland, 
where in 950 they held Grenoble and the 
St Bernard Pass. The consequences of this 
activity, however, fall long after the period 
under discussion and need not be consid- 
ered here. 

To summarize: It is not correct to as- 
sume, as Pirenne does, that a policy of 

economic blockade played as principal a 
role in the warfare of antiquity and the 
Middle Ages as it does today, unless there 
is a positive testimony to that effect, as for 
example, the instance when the Persians 
cut the Greeks off from the supply of 
Eastern silk. With the exception of two 
brief intervals, the Byzantine fleet was 
master of the Aegean and the eastern Medi- 
terranean not only in the seventh century 
but in the following centuries. This same 
fleet defended the West so well that only 
two raids are known to have been attempted 
against Sicily before 700. After the con- 
quest of Spain had been accomplished, the 
Arabs embarked in 720 on an ambitious 
policy which took them for one brief year 
to the Rhone, and exactly coinciding in 
time with these military attacks came a 
series of raids on Sicily; but by 740 dismal 
failure was the reward everywhere, and 
throughout the last fifty years of the cen- 
tury the Arabs were either at peace or on 
the defensive. 

We cannot admit that this evidence per- 
mits one to say, "Thus, it may be asserted 
that navigation with the Orient ceased 
about 650 as regards the regions situated 
eastward of Sicily, while in the second half 
of the 7th century it came to an end in the 
whole of the Western Mediterranean. By 
the beginning of the 8th century it had 
completely disappeared." 

The synchronization of land and sea at- 
tacks, between 720 and 740, was repeated 
a hundred years later, for, as Sicily was 
being reduced, the invaders again crossed 
the Pyrenees. There is little probability that 
such synchronization was deliberate, but on 
this second occasion it was terribly effective. 
Then, if ever, Pirenne's thesis ought to 
apply; for once the enemy held the south- 
ern coast of France and Sicily in full con- 
quest, as well as Southern Italy and the 
port of Bari, thus constituting a threat to 
any navigation in the Adriatic, one would 
imagine that all commerce must have 
ceased. The remarkable fact is that this is 
the very period when we begin to have 
comparatively full records of the commerce 



between the Arabs on one side, and Naples, 
Amalfi, Sorrento, Gaeta, and the rising state 
of Venice on the other side. This com- 
merce prospered despite all efforts of Pope 
and Emperor to suppress it. Jules Gay, the 
eminent authority on the history of South- 
ern Italy in this epoch, has truly observed: 
"In these last years of the ninth century 
when the Arab domination furnished the 
conquest of the Island [Sicily], the hegem- 
ony of Islam in the Mediterranean already 
had found its limit in the restoration of 
Byzantine power in the south of Italy 
on the shores of the Ionian Sea at the 
entrance of the Adriatic. But let us not 
forget that a conquest, quite recent, of the 
greater part of Sicily had been necessary 
to establish this hegemony. Sicily, remain- 
ing entirely Byzantine until 830, succeeded 
in maintaining in a large measure its former 
relations between the two parts of the 
Mediterranean world. To suppose that the 
conquest of Syria and of Egypt between 
630 and 640 had been responsible for the 
severing of the ancient Mediterranean 
unity, the closing of the sea, the isolating 
of the Orient from the Occident, as Pirenne 
seems to believe, is to exaggerate singularly 
the consequence and the extent of the first 
Arab victories .... The final overthrow 
was not the work of a single generation; it 
took place more slowly than one w^ould 
imagine. Carthage remained Byzantine till 
698 and a century yet had to pass for the 
Arab navy to affirm its preponderance in 
the Western basin of this sea." 

Did the Arab conquest of Egypt in 640- 
642 end the exportation of papyrus? The 
evidence is to the contrary. It was not until 
677 that the royal chancery of Gaul adopted 
parchment and it would be difficult to 
imagine that the Prankish government had 
a supply on hand to last for thirty-seven 
years. Actually, papyrus was employed in 
Gaul until a much later epoch, since the 
monks of Corbie obtained fifty rolls in 716, 
but the last specimen, dated 787, discovered 
in the country, had been written in Italy. 

Papyrus was traditionally employed by the 
papacy. Still preserved on papyrus are 
numerous papal documents, together with 
a letter of Constantin V to Pippin and a 
breviary of Archbishop Peter VI (927- 
971) describing the possessions of the 
Church of Ravenna. That papyrus was the 
customary material used by the popes seems 
to be indicated by numerous references, 
e.g., the glossator of the panegyrist of Ber- 
engar comments on the word papyrus 
"secundum Romanum morem elicit, qui in 
papiro scribere solent." 

In light of the evidence, there can be no 
other conclusion than that "the conquest of 
Egypt by the Arabs brought no immediate 
change. The manufacturing of papyrus 
continued." Relying on a statement of Ibn 
Haukal who referred to the cultivation of 
pappus in Sicily in 977, some have held 
that in the tenth and eleventh centuries, 
the papal chancery obtained its supplies in 
Sicily and not in Egypt. In this connection 
it is worth noting that the process of mak- 
ing rag paper was introduced from China 
into the Eastern Caliphate shortly after 
750, and we hear of a paper factory in 
Bagdad in 794. About this time there was 
a decline in Egyptian production of papy- 
rus, and political disturbances in the coun- 
try so interfered with a supply which paper 
had not yet made dispensable, that the 
caliph was forced to establish his own papy- 
rus factory at Samarra in 836. T. W. Allen 
suggests that inasmuch as the earliest 
known Greek minuscule occurs in the 
Uspensky Gospels of 835, one may accept 
as a hypothesis that a known temporary 
shortage of papyrus may have induced the 
world of the Isaurian monarchy to give up 
the use of papyrus, to write on vellum only, 
in book form, on both sides, in a small hand 
permitting the most to be made of the 
space. Papyrus continued to be produced 
until the competition of paper finally de- 
stroyed the industry in the middle of the 
eleventh century, and the fact that the last 
Western document to employ it, a bull of 
Victor II, is dated 1057 and coincides with 
the end of production in Egypt, leads us to 

Pirenne and Muhammad 


believe that it was on Egypt, and not on 
Sicily, that the papacy depended. 

Parchment, of course, was not unknown 
in Merovingian Gaul. Gregory of Tours 
mentions it, as Pirenne points out. It was 
regularly employed in preference to papy- 
rus in Germany from the earliest times. 

Since the Arab conquest of Egypt did 
not cut off the supply of papyrus at its 
source, because this material was still found 
in Gaul a century later and was regularly 
employed by the papacy until the eleventh 
century, it is difficult to say that its dis- 
appearance in Gaul is a conclusive proof 
that the Arabs had cut the trade routes. In 
the absence of all direct evidence one way 
or another, it would appear that as a pos- 
sible hypothesis one might conclude that 
because parchment could be locally pro- 
duced, because it was preferable as a writ- 
ing material, and because, owing to a de- 
preciated coinage, it may not have been 
more expensive than papyrus, the people 
of Gaul preferred to employ it. 

The wines of Gaza undoubtedly were 
no longer exported, or even produced on a 
large scale, since it is a not unreasonable 
assumption that the Arabs, following the 
well known Koranic injunction against 
wine, discouraged its manufacture. Some 
vineyards certainly remained, for the Chris- 
tian churches of Palestine and Syria still 
used wine in celebrating the mass, and cer- 
tain of the later Umayyad Caliphs were 
notorious drunkards. But inasmuch as 
papyrus and (as we shall presently show) 
spices were still exported, the argumentum 
ad vinum cannot be seriously advanced. 


Is it true that with the Carolingians the 
former commerce of Gaul came to an end 
and the importation of Eastern luxuries 

Everyone agrees even Pirenne that 
Gaul was surrounded by countries actively 
engaged in commerce. In Italy, for exam- 
ple, Venetian traders were selling velvet, 
silk, and Tyrian purple in Pavia by 780. 
Early in the ninth century they had trad- 

ing connections with Alexandria, since the 
Doge issued an edict in conjunction with 
Leo V (813-820) forbidding this trade - 
an edict which had little effect in view of 
the fact that Venetian merchants translated 
the body of St Mark in 827. Venice ex- 
ported armor, timber for shipbuilding, and 
slaves the latter despite the interdicts of 
Charlemagne and Popes Zacharias and 
Adrian I and imported all the usual Eastern 
products: spices, papyrus, and silks, large 
quantities of which were purchased by the 

Confronted with the alternative of de- 
fending Christendom or cooperating with 
the Saracens in return for trading rights, 
Naples, Amalfi, Salerno, and Gaeta chose 
the latter course. 

North of Gaul, the Scandinavian coun- 
tries and the region about the Baltic main- 
tained an active intercourse with Persia via 
the water routes of Russia. The Arabs pur- 
chased furs (sable, ermine, martin, fox, and 
beaver), honey, wax, birch bark (for me- 
dicinal purposes), hazel nuts, fish glue, 
leather, amber, slaves, cattle, Norwegian 
falcons, and isinglas (made from sturgeons' 
bladders), and they sold jewelry, felt, metal 
mirrors, luxury goods, and even harpoons 
for the whale fisheries, besides exporting 
large quantities of silver coin to balance an 
unfavorable trade. The evidence for the 
really great prosperity of this commerce is 
to be found in the enormous coin hoards, 
the contents of tombs excavated in Scandi- 
navia, the accounts of Arab geographers, 
and the incidental references in the writ- 
ings and lives of men like Adam of Bremen 
and St Ansgar. 4 Pirenne testifies to the 
importance of commerce in this period for 
the Netherlands. 

We now come to the crucial point. If 
Gaul was surrounded by neighbors actively 
engaged in commerce, did not some of their 
activity embrace Gaul as well? Pirenne de- 

4 Adam of Bremen (llth century) wrote The 
Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg-Bremen, a 
valuable source for North German history. St. 
Ansgar (9th century) was the first Christian 
missionary to the Swedes; his life was written by 
Rimbert, a contempoiaiy. [Editor's note] 



nies this and asserts that no mention of 
spices is to be found after 716 in Gaul and 
that no negotiator of the Merovingian type 
a man who lent money at interest, was 
buried in a sarcophagus, and bequeathed 
property to the poor and the church 

Now spices could be obtained at the time 
of Charlemagne, but at a high price, accord- 
ing to a statement of Alcuin, "Indica pig- 
mentorum genera magno emenda pretio." 
Augsburg, from the beginning of the tenth 
century, imported oriental products via 
Venice. In 908 we read of a gift of Tyrian 
purple by the bishop of Augsburg to the 
monastery of St Gall. . . . 

Einhard, in his account of the translation 
of the blessed martyrs, Marcellinus and 
Peter, mentions that the holy relics on 
arrival were placed on neiv cushions of silk 
and that the shrine was draped with fine 
linen and silk. Abbo, in his epic of the 
siege of Paris by the Northmen in 885- 
886, scorned those whose manners were 
softened by Eastern luxuries, rich attire, 
Tyrian purple, gems, and Antioch leather. 
Similar references are to be found in the 
work of the celebrated monk of St Gall. 5 
Are we certain that this credulous retailer 
of myth completely falsified the local color 
as well? A far more interesting example is 
a long list of spices to be found appended 
to a manuscript of the statutes of Abbot 
Adalhard. These statutes are certainly dated 
in 822, but the manuscript is a copy of 986, 
so scholars have assumed the possibility that 
the list of spices may have been inserted at 
any period between 822 and 986. If this 
were true, Pirenne's case would certainly 
be shaken and he has not hesitated to deny 
the authenticity of the document, which he 
places in the Merovingian period. But he 
can produce not a single argument to sup- 
port his view except the usual one the 
document could not date from 822 or after 
because the Arabs had cut the trade routes 

5 These were the Annals of St. Gaul, written in 
the famous monastery in Switzerland. 

of the Mediterranean. Such a reason is 

That Carolingian Gaul traded with her 
neighbors we may gather from a capitula- 
tion issued by Charlemagne in 805 regu- 
lating commerce with the East in which 
specific towns were named where mer- 
chants might go. Louis the Pious confirmed 
the bishop of Marseilles as collector of tariff 
at the port. An edict of Charles III in 887 
mentions merchants at Passau on the Dan- 
ube who were exempt from customs duties. 
A pact of Lothar in 840 regulated trade 
with Venice. 

Charles the Bald in a charter of im- 
munity given to St Denis in S'84 exempted 
from all exactions boats belonging to the 
monks engaged in trade or to their com- 
mercial agents, . . . 

Sabbe has discovered an example of at 
least one negotiator who died in Bonn in 
845 and disposed of a large estate a man 
who certainly would seem to be included in 
Pirenne's definition of a Merovingian mer- 
chant. We have a continuous record of 
Mainz as a trading center from the ninth 
to the eleventh century: Einhard mentions 
grain merchants who were accustomed 
(solebant) to make purchases in Germany. 
The Annales Fuldenses, for the famine year 
of 850, mention the price of grain there. 
Frisian merchants founded a colony in the 
city in 866. Otto I sent a wealthy merchant 
of Mainz as ambassador to Constantinople 
in 979. An Arab geographer of the next 
century describing the city says, "It is 
strange, too, that one finds there herbs 
which are produced only in the farthest 
Orient: pepper, ginger, cloves, etc." Sabbe 
has collected much evidence, from which 
he concludes that in the ninth and tenth 
centuries there were merchants, men of 
fortune, making long voyages, transporting 
cargoes in ships they owned personally and 
speculating on the rise of prices. , . . 

Any notion that Gaul was separated from 
commercial contacts with the East in the 
ninth and tenth centuries can be contra- 
dicted by irrefutable evidence. 

Pirenne and Muhammad 



Is it true that the culture and stability o 
Merovingian Gaul was largely determined 
by its commerce? The answer to this ques- 
tion is to be found in a brief survey of the 
economic history of the country. From the 
Roman conquest until the end of the sec- 
ond century of our era, Gaul enjoyed an 
immense prosperity based on natural prod- 
ucts. Wheat and barley were produced in 
exportable quantities. Flax and wool were 
woven into textiles famous throughout the 
Mediterranean world. Cicero tells us (De 
Republica, in, 9, 16) that Rome, to safe- 
guard Italian interests from competition, 
forbade the production of wine and olives, 
but the prohibition was ineffective as vine- 
yards and olive orchards multiplied. The 
wine of Vienne was especially prized in 
Rome and in the middle of the second cen- 
tury Gaul exported both oil and olives. 
Forests yielded timber which was sawed 
into planking or exported to feed the fires 
of the baths of the imperial city. In Bel- 
gium horses were bred for the Roman cav- 
alry. Ham, game birds, and the oysters of 
Medoc were prized by Roman gourmets. 

Mines yielded copper, lead, and iron, 
and quarries in the Pyrenees, marble. Espe- 
cially famous was Gallic pottery and glass, 
large quantities of which have been found 
at Pompeii and in Naples and Rome. The 
names of hundreds of free workers are 
known from autographs on sherds. The 
principal industries were textiles and iron- 
ware, for Gallic swords, armor, and metal 
utensils were highly valued. Leather and 
skin containers for oil were widely manu- 
factured. One fact is of the utmost impor- 
tance: the merchants and shipowners who 
carried this commerce were of Gallo-Roman 
birth. The merchants of Narbonne 6 had a 
schola at Ostia as did those of Aries. An 
inscription in Narbonne tells us that a na- 
tive merchant of that city who traded in 
Sicily was an honorary magistrate of all 

6 Narbonne, in southern France, in the Middle 
Ages had a port on the Mediterranean. [Editor's 

the important Sicilian ports. Another in- 
scription found in Beirut, dated 201, con- 
tains a letter of the prefect to representa- 
tives of the five corporations of navicularii 
of Aries. It should be especially noted that 
all the commodities mentioned above have 
one characteristic in common: they are 
either bulky or heavy objects of low intrin- 
sic value which depend of necessity for 
profitable export on cheap transportation 
and relative freedom from onerous tariffs. 
The accession of Commodus in 180 
marks the beginning of serious civil dis- 
turbances in Gaul. Robber bands pillaged 
the country. After his assassination in 192, 
the struggle between Clodius and Septimus 
Severus was settled in the battle of Lyon, 
in the course of which the city was sacked 
and burned. Political disorder in this and 
ensuing periods was always an invitation 
for the barbarians to cross the frontier. 
They now came in bands, inflicting damage 
everywhere, Alexander Severus restored 
some semblance of order and initiated a 
policy of settling the new arrivals in mili- 
tary colonies on the frontier, but assassina- 
tion stayed his hand and the infamous 
Maximin, who dominated the scene after 
235, systematically confiscated all property 
within his grasp. He reduced the most 
illustrious families to poverty, seized the 
property of the different societies and chari- 
table foundations, and stripped the temples 
of their valuables. A treasure hoard uncov- 
ered in 1909 in Cologne, of 100 gold aurei 
and 20,000 silver pieces, dating from Nero 
to 236, testifies to the unhappy fate of the 
owner, who preserved his goods but doubt- 
less lost his life. Maximin shortly was slain, 
but civil war continued from 238 to 261, 
with new invasions of Franks and Alemans 
in 253-257. In 267 the German soldiery 
murdered the emperor, who had forbidden 
them the sacking of Mainz. When Aurelian 
died in 275 more barbarians entered Gaul, 
to be checked until Probus died in 282, 
when Alemans and Burgundians ravaged 
the country and pirates harried the coasts. 
At the same time the terrible Bagaudes, 



robber bands of peasants, wreaked havoc 
wherever they went. It is highly significant 
that in the debris scattered about Roman 
ruins in France today are to be found coins 
and scattered inscriptions dating about, but 
rarely after, the second half of the third 
century, thus fixing the date of the greatest 
damage. Adrian Blanchet, in a study of 
871 coin hoards uncovered in Gaul 'and 
northern Italy, by tabulating the results in 
chronological and geographical form has 
concluded that there is a remarkable cor- 
respondence between the places and pe- 
riods of disorder and invasion, and the loca- 
tion, numbers, and size of the hoards. 

When order was restored in the fourth 
century, the cities had been reduced to a 
size which could be easily fortified and de- 
fended, and they became important rather 
as military centers with a population of offi- 
cials, soldiers, clerics, and a few merchants, 
than as the once thriving, proud, free cities 
of happier eras. An attempt was made at 
reconstruction, as in the case of Autun, rav- 
aged in 269 and restored in the years after 
296. Testifying to the lack of skilled labor 
was the importation of masons from Britain 
to assist in the rebuilding. Yet when Con- 
stantine visited Autun in 311 it was still 
poor and sparsely settled, while the citizens 
who survived complained of the crushing 

Renewed civil war followed the death of 
Constantine in 337, culminating in the 
Prankish invasion of 355. Julian's cam- 
paigns brought peace and a revitalized life, 
but the year following his death, 363, the 
Alemans again invaded the country and in 
368 sacked Mainz. After 395 Gaul" was vir- 
tually abandoned by the Empire. 

In addition to these civil disturbances, 
the depreciation of the Roman coinage in 
the third century was a powerful factor in 
leading to the institution of the colonnate 
and compulsory services of the fourth cen- 
tury with attendant hardships on the poor 
and middle classes. The severity of their 
circumstances urged them to seek relief 
through the relationship of the precarium 
and patrocinium, producing as the result 

the dominating class of the great landhold- 
ers of the senatorial aristocracy and a gen- 
eral weakening of all imperial authority. 

One would imagine that the final prod- 
uct of these disturbances and regulations 
would be the serious, if not catastrophic de- 
terioration of the once flourishing economic 
activity of the country, and our information 
leads us to believe that such was the case. 
Some cloth was still made at Treves, Metz, 
and Reims; but, if we except the beautiful 
jewelry of the Merovingian age, the glass 
industry alone may be said to have flour- 
ished, although the pieces that have sur- 
vived are poor in quality and design and 
characterized by imperfect purification of 
the glass. Technical skill in masonry was 
limited, and the crudity of lettering on in- 
scriptions bears witness to a decline of 
craftsmanship. During the earlier period of 
the empire, there were frequent references 
to Gallic sailors, as we have shown, but in 
the fourth century we hear only of African, 
Spanish, Syrian, and Egyptian sailors, and 
it is, of course, well known that Syrians 
and Orientals henceforth play an increas- 
ingly dominant role in trade and commerce. 
It would be a serious mistake to exaggerate 
this decline. Aries was still a busy port for 
the entrance of Eastern commodities, as an 
edict of Honorius of 418 testifies, and some 
possessors of large estates were extremely 
wealthy not only in land, but in large sums 
of gold; however, the accumulative testi- 
mony of writers, archaeology, and legisla- 
tion indicates a far smaller scale of activity 
in industry and commerce then two cen- 
turies earlier. 

Consequently, if after the Gothic inva- 
sions of North Italy, Southern Gaul, and 
Spain, and the Vandal conquest of North 
Africa and pirate raids in the western Medi- 
terranean in the fifth century, we wish to 
speak of commerce as a determining factor 
in Merovingian Gaul, we would have to 
show that the reigns of Clovis and his suc- 
cessors produced a considerable economic 
revival, rather than that they maintained 
purely the status quo. This is, of course, 
one of the major parts of Pirenne's thesis: 

Pirenne and Muhammad 


that there was an important identity in all 
the significant aspects of life, government, 
and culture between East and West, a true 
unity which effected a real survival in- 
deed revival of prosperity until the Mus- 
lim conquest. Consequently, a comparison 
of West and East is necessary, and if possi- 
ble an attempt should be made to show 
whether Merovingian government acted to 
encourage or discourage commerce. 

The government of Merovingian Gaul 
was a monarchy, absolute in all respects, 
and if one may judge from the conduct of 
its rulers as revealed in the history of 
Gregory of Tours, the monarch had a very 
imperfect grasp of the "antique" notion of 
the state as an instrument designed to pro- 
mote the common welfare. True, Clovis 
and his successors preserved many of the 
features of the Roman administrative sys- 
temparticularly the method of deriving 
revenue, but there was certainly not the 
slightest reason for altering the machinery 
of an institution designed to raise the maxi- 
mum of taxes when the principal aim of 
the ruler was to acquire as much wealth as 
possible. But even the operation of this 
part of the government became increasingly 
inefficient, particularly in the collection of 
the taxes on land, for the registers were in 
the greatest disorder and rarely revised, and 
the powerful did not pay at all. Thus, it 
came about that the easiest imposts to col- 
lect were the indirect tolls on commerce, 
for officers could be stationed on bridges, at 
cross roads, in the ports, and along the 
principal waterways to waylay all who 
passed. All the old levies of the later em- 
pire remained or were multiplied, . . . The 
internal free trade of a bygone era was a 
thing of the past, and it should be obvious 
that while such tariffs could be borne by 
goods of high intrinsic value and small 
bulk, or by goods going short distances, 
they would certainly put an intolerable 
burden on those products which once con- 
stituted the basis of Gaul's prosperity. 

True, Latin was still the language of 

administration, but after the death of Jus- 
tinian, Greek replaced Latin in the East. 

Let us compare the position of King and 
Emperor. The sovereign of the East was 
the chief of a hierarchy of subordinate mag- 
istrates. He was not above the law, but 
held himself bound to conform to the ac- 
cumulated tradition of Roman law and to 
his own edicts. As ruler, his main preoccu- 
pation was the preservation of his empire 
and its administrative machinery from at- 
tacks without and within the state, but he 
did not hesitate to introduce innovations 
when circumstances warranted a change. 
He maintained a standing army and fleet 
commanded by professional officers whose 
sworn duty it was to keep the empire secure 
from all threats. To accomplish all these 
ends the empire was organized into an ad- 
ministrative bureaucracy, carefully regu j 
lated, of extraordinary complexity and 

The King of Gaul, on the contrary, 
thought of himself rather less as a magis- 
trate and rather more as a proprietor. The 
imperial office in the East was in theory 
elective, but the King in the West divided 
his kingdom after his death by rules of in- 
heritance among his several sons without, 
as Lot has observed, any regard for geogra- 
phy, ethnography, or the desires of the 
people. Before 476 the unity of East and 
West, despite the presence of two emper- 
ors, was not only theory but fact, for both 
emperors issued laws under their joint 
names, and a general law promulgated by 
one emperor and transmitted to the other 
for publication was universally valid, but 
the division of Gaul among the King's sons 
shattered all legislative unity within the 
separate kingdoms, and such unity was re- 
stored only when and if a more powerful 
son succeeded in overwhelming and mur- 
dering his brothers. Furthermore, an edict 
issued in Constantinople was neither valid 
nor binding in Merovingian Gaul indeed, 
was probably never heard of. In Gaul 
the army cost little or nothing, for it was 
neither professional nor standing, but was 
recruited by compulsion and without pay 



when the occasion or emergency warranted. 
Because a third of the proceeds of judg- 
ment went to the King, the courts were 
regarded more as a source of profit than as 
instruments of justice. In contrast to the 
complex bureaucracy of the East, in Gaul 
the King confided local administration to a 
few officials who combined executive, finan- 
cial, and judicial functions in their one 
person, who commonly purchased their 
office, and who commonly exercised it to 
their own profit and the destruction and 
despair of the inhabitants submitted to their 

Pirenne is greatly impressed by the fact 
that the barbarian states had three features 
in common with the Empire: they were 
absolutist, they were secular, and the in- 
struments of government were the fisc and 
the treasury. This seems to be a similarity 
without significance or value. Most states 
ruled by one man are absolutist, secular, 
and dependent on the treasury yet that 
does not prove a derived and intentional 
identity with Byzantium. The personal role 
cf Charles I before the summoning of the 
Long Parliament was absolutist; like the 
Byzantine Emperor, Charles was the head 
of the church, and his power was exclu- 
sively dependent on the treasury, but surely 
no one would dream of maintaining that 
there was a valid identity between Stuart 
England and the Eastern Roman Empire. 
What earthly reason would Clovis and his 
successors have had for setting up any other 
kind of state? 

But, still more important, is this supposed 
identity, even if insignificant, really true? 
We have already indicated that the absolut- 
ism of the Emperor was different in some 
respects from that of the King. Were both 
governments secular in the same sense and 
spirit? Pirenne defines a secular govern- 
ment as one conducted without the aid or 
intervention of the church and its officials, 
and one in which the King was a pure lay- 
man whose power did not depend upon any 
religious ceremony, although the King 
might nominate bishops and other clergy 
and even summon synods. 

It is, of course, true that the Byzantine 
Emperor was a layman in the sense that his 
power did not depend upon any religious 
ceremony. Ever since Leo I was crowned in 
457 by the Patriarch, that ecclesiastic usu- 
ally performed the act of coronation, yet, 
he did so as an important individual not 
as a representative of the church so that 
his presence was not legally indispensable. 

The church, however, was most certainly 
subject to the state, in a manner utterly 
unlike that in Gaul, and the union of 
church and state which became always 
closer as time went on profoundly affected 
the character of both. It will be recalled 
that Constantine had established the prin- 
ciple that it was the emperor's duty and 
right to summon and preside over general 
councils of the church, and the later em- 
perors considered themselves competent 
even to legislate in all religious questions. 
Justinian, who was a complete Erastian, 
did so. He issued edicts regulating the 
election of bishops, the ordination of priests, 
the appointment of abbots, and the man- 
agement of church property, nor did he 
hesitate to pronounce and define his own 
views, on matters of faith. , . . 

If the Emperor, then, played a major role 
in church affairs, it is also true that the 
bishops assumed an increasing importance 
in the civil administration of cities, and 
Justinian added to their civil functions. 
They had the right of acting as judges in 
civil suits when both parties agreed to sub- 
mit to their arbitration, and judgment once 
given was not subject to appeal. In munici- 
palities they had the duty of protecting the 
poor against the tyranny either of the agents 
of the Emperor or the nobles, and they 
could appeal directly over the heads of the 
administrative hierarchy to the Emperor 
himself. Throughout the territory of the 
exarchate of Ravenna, the bishops were 
general supervisors of the baths, granaries, 
aqueducts, and municipal finance. They 
protected the poor, prisoners, and slaves. 
They nominated to the Emperor the candi- 
dates for provincial magistracies and as- 
sisted at the installation of new governors. 

Pirenne and Muhammad 


They examined for traces of illegality the 
acts of civil officials. They received notice 
before publication of all new laws. In short, 
they had the recognized power of continual 
intervention in all matters of secular policy. 

Whereas the King of the Franks inter- 
fered in the appointment of church officers, 
he did not pretend to settle larger matters 
which were reserved for the authority of 
the Pope, and whereas the Pope's compe- 
tence was acknowledged in the West, and 
his claim to be the chief of all bishops was 
admitted in the East, we have already seen 
that his authority was frequently chal- 
lenged and defied by the Emperor, so that 
a closer examination reveals that far from 
the Pope and Emperor being mutually in- 
dispensable, as Pirenne asserts, the Pope 
recognized the Emperor's intervention and 
definition of doctrine only when the tem- 
poral authority of the Exarchs was sufficient 
to compel obedience, or an alliance and co- 
operation with the Emperor were essential 
for an immediate papal aim, so that as a 
general thing it would be more correct to 
say that from the time of Gregory the 
Great, the Popes submitted when they 
must, but asserted their independence 
when they could. Thus, by Pirenne's own 
definition of secular, it will be seen that 
there was a very great difference between 
the state of the Franks and that of the 

No problem is more important than this: 
why did the Romans preserve the Empire 
in the East and lose it to the barbarians in 
the West? Various answers have been 
given: the impregnable situation of Con- 
stantinople and the more strongly fortified 
towns of the East, the more favorable geo- 
graphical factors, the occupation of the 
throne by men of real ability in times of 
crisis, and the purely fortuitous turn of 
events at many times. Of the many factors 
one should not underestimate two: the 
character of the emperors and of the citizen 
population in the East. Both ruler and 
ruled composed a society which through 
the traditions of centuries had become ac- 
customed to the idea of the State as an 

instrument for the very preservation and 
well-being of society, and to this concept 
of living under law administered by the 
officials of government both ruler and ruled 
paid homage and acknowledged the obli- 
gation. Thus there was a community of 
thought for self-preservation. Unfortu- 
nately in the West the same sentiments 
had not been a sufficient bulwark to keep 
out the invaders, and the newcomers to 
power, however much of the paraphernalia 
of the previous government they may have 
taken over, certainly failed to absorb, or 
absorbed but imperfectly, the old notions 
of the nature of the state and the value of 
its traditions. The principal fact of the 
Merovingian period was the decomposition 
of public power. The refinements of state- 
craft were an unappreciated art to the 
wielders of a purely personal power, and 
this blindness to realities led the kings to 
take those measures which resulted in the 
sapping of their own authority. The grant- 
ing of immunities has long been recognized 
as a short-sighted act, productive of decay 
of royal absolutions. Inasmuch as we have 
already demonstrated that the Arabs did 
not cut off the trade routes at a time when 
the effects of their acts could have resulted 
in the granting of immunities due to weak- 
ening of power by the loss of revenue, 
Pirenne's interpretation of the proper se- 
quence of cause and effect may be rejected. 
Indeed, we first learn of the granting of 
immunities in the sixth century, and after 
623 the instances become increasingly nu- 
merous; the practice was well established 
long before anyone knew who Muhammad 
was, and Fustel de Coulanges has well re- 
marked, "Immunity does not date from the 
decadence of the Merovingian; it is almost 
as ancient as the Prankish monarchy itself." 7 
In a wild and bloody period where one 
Merovingian fought another, the reckless 
expenditure of money, the destruction of 
property, the escape of the nobility from 
taxation, the conciliation of partisans by 

7 Fustel de Coulanges, Les Origines du Systeme 
Feodal (Paris, 1907), 345. [Dennett's note] 



lavish gifts, these, and similar factors 
weakened the royal authority. 

Pirenne asserts that "the foreign policy 
of the Empire embraced all peoples of 
Europe, and completely dominated the 
policy of the Germanic State." The fact 
that on certain occasions embassies were 
sent to Constantinople or that the Emperor 
at one time hired the Franks to attack the 
Lombards is the chief basis of this assertion. 
Clovis may have been honored by the title 
of "consul," but would anyone maintain 
that he considered himself answerable to 
the will of the Emperor? Insofar as for 
much of the time the conduct of the kings 
either in their domestic or foreign affairs 
can hardly be honored by the term "policy/ 7 
it would be probably true to say that the 
Emperor was the only one to have a foreign 

Again, Pirenne makes a great point of 
the fact that the Merovingians for a long 
time employed the image of the Emperor 
on their coins. So did the Arabs, until 
Abdul Malik's reform, and for the same 

In fact, in matters of law, of policy do- 
mestic and foreign, of language, of culture, 
of statecraft and political vision, the king- 
dom of the Franks and the empire of the 
Greeks were as independent of one another 
as two different sovereign states can be, and 
if one is reduced to speaking of the mystical 
"unity of Romania" as a dominant histori- 
cal fact, one has reduced history itself to 

Now to return again, after this digres- 
sion, to the problem of commerce in Mero- 
vingian Gaul. It must be clear that there is 
nothing which one can indicate as calcu- 
lated to improve the economic prosperity 
of the country. Furthermore, three charac- 
teristics dominate the picture: 

1. People of Oriental origin appear to 
play the chief role in commerce. 

2. These Syrians are dealing in luxury 
goods of eastern origin: spices, papyrus, 

3. We have practically no mention at all 
of exports from Gaul to the East. 

Is there any connection between these 
three facts and the internal political and 
social condition of the country? 

First: There is a physical factor in trans- 
portation too often ignored. Goods of high 
value and small compass may be trans- 
ported long distances, in face of hardship 
and peril, and still be sold for a profit. This 
circumstance alone accounts for the sur- 
vival and prosperity of the land route of five 
thousand miles across Central Asia, since 
tightly baled silk carried by camel and other 
pack animals was valuable enough to offset 
the cost of transportation. For the same 
reason, spices \vhich had already passed 
through the hands of at least three or four 
middlemen before reaching a Mediter- 
ranean port could be taken to Gaul, either 
by sea or by land, and yield a satisfactory 
return to those who made the effort. What 
was true of spices was also true of papyrus 
and of silk from Byzantium. A merchant 
with capital enough to purchase a few hun- 
dred pounds of pepper, or of cinnamon, or 
of silk even though he had to make wide 
detours, cover difficult terrain, take consid- 
erable risks, and pay innumerable tolls 
might still expect to make a profit. 

But we have already had occasion to 
point out that during the flourishing years 
of the late Republic and early Empire, the 
commercial prosperity of Gaul was founded 
principally upon the export of the natural 
products of the country: food stuffs, 
cheaper textiles, timber, pottery, glass, skin 
bags, and so forth. These commodities 
could either be produced in the other parts 
of the empire, or could be dispensed with 
altogether. To compete favorably in the 
imperial marts their export depended on 
secure and relatively cheap transportation 
and the absence of oppressive tolls and re- 
strictive legislation. Therefore, when we 
consider the destruction wrought by the 
barbarian invasions, the civil turmoil, the 
depreciation of the coinage, and the im- 
poverishment of the empire in the third 
century, we should expect the foreign mar- 
kets for Gallic products would be tempo- 
rarily lost, and it would appear reasonable 

Pirenne and Muhammad 


to conclude that the rigid economic and 
social legislation of the emperors after Dio- 
cletian's restoration, the collection of taxes 
in kind, the multiplication of indirect tolls 
and tariffs, compulsory services, the fiscal 
policy of the Prankish kings, and the ab- 
sence of any policy to promote commerce 
and economic enterprise, would have made 
it virtually impossible, even if the desire 
had existed, to recover and reestablish lost 
or disorganized markets. 

These assumptions have, in fact, com- 
monly been held by most economic histori- 
ans of the period, and no one has ever 
produced sufficient evidence seriously to 
threaten their validity. They are, of course, 
very inconvenient for Pirenne's thesis. He 
consequently challenges them, but unfortu- 
nately has been unable to find more than 
one direct piece of evidence: that Gregory 
the Great purchased some woollen cloth in 
Marseilles and had some timber sent to 
Alexandria. He also is "rather inclined" to 
believe that the Germanic invasions revived 
the prosperity of the slave trade. 


Since this evidence is scarcely convinc- 
ing, and since it would be difficult to find 
more, Pirenne turns to the problem of 
money and says, "In any case, the abun- 
dant circulation of gold compels us to con- 
clude that there was a very considerable 
export trade." Now, in the absence of any 
banking system for settling by the shipment 
of bullion an accumulated disparity be- 
tween exports and imports, one would cer- 
tainly be prepared to believe it quite possi- 
ble that the export of some products would 
bring foreign gold into the country, al- 
though the total supply might be diminish- 
ing due to larger imports, and this was un- 
doubtedly the case, but Pirenne goes much 
farther and makes it very plain that he be- 
lieves the exports from Gaul in early Mero- 
vingian days exceeded in value, or at least 
equalled, the imports of eastern products, 
since "if it [gold] had been gradually 
drained away by foreign trade we should 
find that it diminished as time went on. 

But we do not find anything of the sort." 
He argues that when the Muslim conquest 
closed the trade routes, gold became a rarity 
and was abandoned for silver as a medium 
of exchange. The employment of silver was 
the real beginning of the Middle Ages and 
is a witness of a reversion to natural econ- 
omy. When gold reappeared, the Middle 
Ages were over, and "Gold resumed its 
place in the monetary system only when 
spices resumed theirs in the normal diet." 

A natural question arises. If gold re- 
mained the medium of currency, unim- 
paired in quantity due to a favorable export 
balance until the Arabs cut the trade routes, 
what happened to it then? It could not 
have flowed East after the catastrophe on 
the assumption that exports suffered before 
imports, because Pirenne is insistent, and 
all the evidence he has collected is designed 
to show that it was the import of Eastern 
products which first disappeared. If gold 
could, not flow East, why did it not remain 
in Gaul as a medium of local exchange? 

There are at least three factors in the 

1. From the earliest times small quanti- 
ties of gold were found in the beds of cer- 
tain streams flowing from the Pyrenees, and 
even in the sands of the Rhine, but the 
supply was so negligible that one may assert 
that the West produced no gold. On the 
other hand, there were substantial deposits 
of silver, and there were silver mines at 
Melle in Poitou and in the Harz mountains. 

2. It should be unnecessary to point out 
that we have not the slightest idea of the 
total amount of gold in Gaul at any period. 
We occasionally hear of an amount con- 
fiscated by a king, of a loan given by a 
bishop, of a sum bequeathed the church 
by a landholder or merchant, of the size of 
booty or tribute, of a subsidy of 50,000 
solidi sent by the Emperor, but that is all. 
In many cases, without doubt, a figure or 
instance is mentioned, not because it was 
usual, but because it was extraordinary. 
The number and importance of coin finds 
are not in any proportion to the probable 
facts and may not be relied on. Therefore 



when Pirenne speaks of 'large'' amounts of 
gold, he is merely guessing. Furthermore, 
as is well known, there was in general cir- 
culation a bronze and silver currency for 
use in smaller transactions. 

3. Gregory the Great (590-604) testifies 
that Gallic gold coins were so bad that they 
did not circulate in Italy, and an examina- 
tion of coins shows a progressive debase- 
ment before the Arab conquest. Since these 
coins did not come from the royal mint, but 
were struck by roving minters for people 
in more than a hundred known localities, 
one has evidence of the chaotic decen- 
tralization of the government and lack of 
interest in orderly financial administration, 
together with a possible indication of a 
growing scarcity of gold. 

If gold disappeared in Gaul, this dis- 
appearance could be due to the following 
causes : 

a. It might have been hoarded, buried, 
and lost. 

b. It might have been exchanged or used 
for the purchase of silver. 

c. It might have been drained off in pur- 
chase of commodities in a one sided trade, 
or paid in tribute. 

d. Through the operation of Gresham's 
law, foreign merchants might have hoarded 
and removed the good gold coinage, leaving 
a debased coinage in local circulation. 

There is no evidence to support the first 
two hypotheses, and considerable evidence 
for the last two both of which amount to 
this same fact: gold was drained out of the 
country. This hypothesis is strongly sup- 
ported by the best known authority and 
Bloch gives good reasons for accepting it. 
Gold, of course, did not completely dis- 
appear in the West, as the manufacture of 
jewelry and occasional references show, 
and it would be interesting to possess the 
full facts about the gold coin counterfeiting 
the Arab dinar the mancus. However, it 
is difficult to accept the thesis advanced by 
Dopsch that there was enough gold to con- 
stitute with silver a truly bimetallic cur- 
rency. But it is even more difficult to accept 
the proposition of Pirenne that the change 

from gold to silver meant a change from 
money to natural economy. The numerous 
instances which prove conclusively that 
money continued as a medium of exchange 
have been diligently collected by Dopsch 
and need not be repeated. It is not clear 
why silver coinage should equal natural 
economy. China and Mexico use silver to- 
day, and the coins of Arab mintage found 
in the Baltic regions are also silver, yet no 
one would pretend that in these instances 
we are dealing with a system of natural 
economy. Had a system of natural economy 
prevailed we might have expected an ab- 
sence of all kinds of money, and the fact 
that the Carolingians introduced a pure, 
standard, centrally minted silver coinage 
would seem logically to prove just the con- 
trary of Pirenne's thesis. But Pirenne takes 
as a point the circumstance of the monas- 
teries in those regions of Belgium where 
the soil will not support vineyards. "The 
fact that nearly all the monasteries in this 
region where the cultivation of the vine is 
impossible, made a point of obtaining 
estates in the vine-growing countries, 
either in the valleys of the Rhine and 
Moselle or in that of the Seine, as gifts 
from their benefactors, proves that they 
were unable to obtain wine by ordinary 
commercial means." 8 Pirenne has drawn 
his information from an article of Hans 
van Werveke. 9 The latter appears to have 
been a collaborator of Pirenne's and asserts, 
"The phenomenon which we signal is so 
general that we can say that it responds to 
an economic law." Now a superficial ob- 
server, intent on discovering for himself the 
likeliest place to observe the functioning 
of a system of natural self-sufficing econ- 
omy, might very reasonably turn to a mon- 
astery as the logical place of all places, be- 
cause of monastic rules themselves, to find 

8 Pirenne, "The Place of the Netherlands in the 
Economic History of Medieval Europe," Economic 
History Review, H (1929), 23. [Dennett's note] 

Hans van Werveke, "Comment les etablisse- 
ments religieux beiges se procuraient-ils du vin 
au haut moyen age/' Revue Eelge de Philologie et 
d'Histoire, H (1923), 643-662. [Dennett's note] 

Pirenne and Muhammad 


such a system in operation. On the con- 
trary, it is a well known fact that in the 
Middle Ages a good many monasteries were 
something more than self-sufficing and 
turned to advantage surplus commodities 
which they disposed of, or profited as toll 
collectors, if rivers, bridge, or roads were 
within their property. . . . 

To conclude: There is no evidence to 
prove that the Arabs either desired to close, 
or actually did close the Mediterranean to 
the commerce of the West either in the 
seventh or eighth centuries. Islam was hos- 
tile to Christianity as a rival, not as a com- 
pletely alien faith, and the Muslims were 
invariably more tolerant than the Chris- 
tians, but Islam as a culture, as the com- 
mon faith of those who submitted and who 
spoke Arabic, though not necessarily by any 
means of Arab blood, had far more in com- 
mon with the Hellenized East and with 
Byzantium than did the Gaul of Pirenne's 
Romania. Much of what he says of Gaul 
was true of Islam. The Merovingians took 
over the administrative and particularly the 
taxation system of Rome intact. So did the 
Arabs. The Merovingians preserved Latin 
as the language of administration. The 
Arabs used Greek. Western art was influ- 
enced by Byzantine forms. So was Arab. 
But these are smaller matters. The crude 
Western barbarians were not able to de- 
velopindeed, they were too ignorant to 

preserve the state and the culture they took 
by conquest, while the Arabs on the con- 
trary not only preserved what they took but 
created from it a culture which the world 
had not known for centuries, and which 
was not to be equalled for centuries more. 
This culture was based on that of the Hel- 
lenized Eastern Mediterranean in one part 
and on that of Persia strongly permeated 
with both Hellenic and Indian elements, 
on the other. Arab theology, Arab philoso- 
phy, Arab science, Arab art none was 
in opposition to late antique culture, as 
Pirenne seems to imagine, but was a new, 
fertile, virile, and logical development of 
long established forms. The decadence of 
the West the so-called Middle Ages 
was due to a complexity of causes, mostly 
internal, and largely connected with social 
and political institutions. Rostovtzeff, writ- 
ing of economic conditions of the later 
Roman Empire, frequently warns against 
mistaking an aspect for a cause, and most 
of the economic factors of the Middle Ages 
are aspects and not causes. Thus, the man 
whether he be a Pirenne or a Dopsch 
who attempts to understand and to inter- 
pret either the Merovingian or Carolingian 
period in terms purely of an economic inter- 
pretation of history will be certain to fail, 
for the simple reason that economic factors 
play a subsidiary role and present merely 
aspects in the great causative process. 





Anne Rilsing's article in a Danish journal is a generally successful 
attempt to summarize the controversy which has developed over the 
years. She states briefly the essentials of the Pirenne Thesis and then 
proceeds to an analysis of the evidence and a summary of the views of 
various historians with respect to that evidence. If is a very compre- 
hensive treatment. The extracts below provide her own statement of the 
problem and her own conclusions concerning the status of the contro- 
versy at the time she writes. There are some slight changes in the order 
of her material to bring together on particular points her summary 
questions and her summary conclusions. The student is warned that her 
essential purpose is merely to bring together the results of research 
over the years. He should not necessarily adopt her conclusions and 
should note carefully her own statement, "the last word has certainly 
not yet been said," and especially her appeal for clearer definitions and 
for an entire revision of the formulation of the problem itself. 

EVERY MEDIEVALIST is acquainted with 
Henri Pirenne's theses on the con- 
sequences of the Islamic expansion, put 
forward in the years 1922-35. According 
to these the Roman empire was neither de- 
stroyed nor germanized by the Germanic 
invasions, and "Romania" remained a cul- 
tural and economic unity. The best proof 
of this is to be found in the flourishing com- 
merce of Gaul, to which Syrian merchants, 
resident in the Occident, imported Oriental 
spices, wines of Ghaza, oil, papyrus, and 
luxury cloths. This commerce brought vast 
quantities of gold to the country, and this 
money was the foundation of political life, 
in as much as the king's power was derived 
from the income obtained by taxes on com- 

merce. The secular classical civilization 
likewise remained unchanged. But the 
Islamic expansion crushed the Mediter- 
ranean unity and heralded the middle ages. 
From the middle of the 7th century two 
hostile civilizations faced each other across 
the Mediterranean, the sea was closed, and 
at the beginning of the 8th century all 
Oriental commerce had come to an end. 
The urban life and the professional mer- 
chants disappeared, gold yielded to silver, 
money to natural economy, and the king's 
power collapsed. The Carolingians took the 
consequences, founded their power on the 
land, and moved the economic, cultural, 
and political centre towards the north. The 
Carolingian kingdom was a purely conti- 

From Anne Riising, "The Fate of Henri Pirenne's Theses on tne Consequence of the Islamic Expan- 
sion, Classica et Mediaevalia, XIII O952), 87-130. Published by Librairie Gyldendal, Copenhagen, 
1952, and used with their permission. 


The Fate of the Henri Pirenne Theses 


nental state, dominated by the Germanic 
population, whose influence was strength- 
ened by the active mission among heathen 
Germanic peoples. The character of civili- 
zation changed from secular to clerical, edu- 
cation became an ecclesiastical monopoly, 
and the easy quick cursive was replaced by 
the calligraphic minuscule. Furthermore, 
the Islamic expansion restricted the author- 
ity of the pope to Western Europe, and 
since Byzantium could no longer defend 
Rome against the Lombards, the pope 
called in the Franks. Thus it is correct to 
say that without Mohammed, Charlemagne 
would have been inconceivable. 

The thesis is divided into two distinct 
parts, one showing the continuation of the 
classical tradition in the Merovingian age, 
the other demonstrating the fundamental 
Change of society in the Carolingian age. 
It is, in fact, a new catastrophe theory, 
giving a novel explanation of the beginning 
of the middle ages and the making of Euro- 
pean civilization. But as the entire thesis 
is based on the influence of commerce, the 
literary discussion has mainly concentrated 
on the problem of the Oriental commerce, 
and only a few important works have ap- 
peared on the cultural development. 


To judge the importance of the Oriental 
commerce and its fate after the Islamic ex- 
pansion three essential problems must be 

i. Is it true that Merovingian Gaul had 
an Oriental commerce of such dimen- 
sions as to be the foundation of society 
and civilization? 

n. How and when could the Arabs break 
off Mediterranean trade, and why did 
they want to do so? 

in. Had the Carolingian age no foreign 
commerce at all and in particular no 
Oriental commerce? 

Is it true that Merovingian Gaul had 
an Oriental commerce of such dimensions 

as to be the foundation of society and 
civilization? . . . 

To sum up. An extensive Oriental com- 
merce and a general internal prosperity in 
the Merovingian age has not been proved 
and hardly rendered probable. The eco- 
nomic and political development since the 
3rd century, combined with the decline of 
population, suggest a progressive deca- 
dence, so that the burden of proof must rest 
on those who think otherwise. Since no- 
body has shouldered this burden yet, it is 
reasonable to assume that the commerce 
with the Orient was far too small to be the 
determining factor in Gallic society, and 
this means that a great part of Pirenne's 
thesis has collapsed. ... 


How and when could the Arabs break 
off Mediterranean trade, and why did they 
want to do so? 

The first question to be asked is: Had 
the Arabs power to cut off the commerce 
at all? They might do so by stopping ex- 
port from the Moslem countries and block- 
ading the Mediterranean sea routes; or they 
might shut out Western Europe by military 
occupation of the Mediterranean coasts; or, 
finally, the Saracen piracy, though hardly 
an intended phenomenon, might paralyze 
navigation. But in no possible way could 
they cut off land intercourse between By- 
zantium and Western Europe. 

These different possibilities give differ- 
ent answers to the next question, the fixing 
of the date when the Mediterranean com- 
merce could cease. If the Caliphate imme- 
diately embarked on an economic policy 
with this end in view, it might perhaps 
have been partly accomplished by the end 
of the 7th century, provided sufficient naval 
strength was created. A military occupa- 
tion could not be effective until the 8th 
century, and the piracy was of no real im- 
portance until the 9th century. But apart 
from these aspects we must ask one funda- 
mental question: Is it reasonable to assume 
that the Arabs did intend to cut off Medi- 
terranean commerce, and, if so, what was 



the reason"? If the answer is in the negative, 
it must finally be investigated, if the mak- 
ing of the Caliphate perhaps brought about 
such profound changes of international 
economic conditions that these by them- 
selves led to the end of the commerce be- 
tween the Orient and the Occident . . . 

To sum up. There is no reason to sup- 
pose that the Arabs intended to destroy the 
Mediterranean commerce, or that they did 
so either by blockade, military occupation, 
or piracy. But this does not prove an exten- 
sive commerce in the Carolingian kingdom. 
Considering the earlier development, it was 
to be expected that the commerce between 
the Orient and Western Europe, steadily 
decreasing because of the passive balance 
of trade, would die a natural death in the 
Carolingian age. A closer scrutiny of this 
is necessary. 


Had the Carolingian age no foreign 
commerce at all and in particular no Orien- 
tal commerce: 5 

It is hardly probable that political or 
religious contrasts may have caused the 
Christian Occident to refuse economic re- 
lations with the Moslems. Nor could the 
ecclesiastical disapproval of luxury and 
scant appreciation of commerce as a whole 
seriously impede the commercial activity, 
and though some Oriental products might 
be replaced by European ones, e.g. papyrus 
by parchment and oil by fat and butter, 
the demand for spices and luxury cloths 
never ceased. 

But to judge the extent of the commerce 
between the Orient and the Christian Occi- 
dent a number of questions must be an- 
swered: Is it true that the Carolingian age 
did not know Oriental products? Did the 
Syrian merchants disappear without being 
replaced by others? Were sea and land 
routes to the Orient cut off? Was the Caro- 
lingian kingdom on the whole character- 
ized by a closed economy without money, 
especially without gold or other means of 
paying an import from the Orient? . . . 

To sum up. Since the later Roman em- 
pire the Occident was in a state of progres- 

sive economic decadence, and its Oriental 
commerce decreased steadily, because the 
passive balance of trade drained the gold 
reserves. The Islamic expansion did not 
bring ruin, for the Arabs neither wanted to 
nor could destroy the commerce. On the 
contrary, the immense prosperity within 
the Caliphate created a demand for Occi- 
dental commodities, and by a surplus of 
exports Western Europe acquired Arabian 
gold and silver. This enabled the Occident 
to resume the import from Byzantium, 
which incidentally contributed to the eco- 
nomic revival of this empire. 

But the shape of the international com- 
merce of the Carolingian age was certainly 
very different from that of the Merovingian 
age. France itself had hardly any direct 
communication with the Levant, but traded 
through Moslem Spain and Byzantine Italy 
and had an indirect contact via the Baltic 
and Russia and through Central Europe. 
The whole of Europe had been involved in 
the international commerce, which for the 
first time in history had taken shape of a 
true interchange. However, the real cen- 
tre of the Oriental commerce in the Occi- 
dent was no doubt Italy, while France was 
of secondary importance, but that was only 
natural. After all, the Carolingian kingdom 
was mainly a continental state, and the in- 
ternal trade and even more the Northern 
Frisian commerce were no doubt of far 
greater importance than the Oriental com- 
merce. Though this may have been more 
extensive than in the Merovingian age, its 
relative importance was certainly much 
smaller, and it must not be forgotten that 
both internal and foreign commerce were 
far less important than agriculture. Italy, 
on the other hand, was naturally turned 
towards the Mediterranean, and the Byzan- 
tine provinces were particularly suited to 
deal in Byzantine commodities. The Italian 
commerce with Oriental countries was 
probably of larger dimensions and certainly 
of far greater relative importance than the 
French, and it was natural that the Italians, 
rather than anyone else, should seize on 
the Oriental commerce. 

The Fate of the Henri Pirenne Theses 



Many historians have ventured to judge 
what may have been the influence of the 
Islamic expansion on the cultural develop- 
ment of Western Europe, but most of them 
confine themselves to some general consid- 
erations, and very few primary studies have 
appeared. The entire discussion turns on 
two central questions: 

i. Was the Mediterranean sphere a true 
cultural unity until the beginning of the 
7th century, and was this unity destroyed 
by Islam? 

ii. Was the civilization of the Carolin- 
gian age fundamentally different from that 
of the Merovingian age? . . . 

To sum up. In fact very little light has 
been shed on the immediate effect of the 
Islamic expansion on the cultural develop- 
ment of Western Europe, and it is unfortu- 
nately unlikely that certain results will ever 
be established, since after all it remains a 
matter of subjective judgment whether one 
will speak of a cultural unity or not. From 
the later Roman Empire a growing differ- 
ence between the Eastern and the Western 
Mediterranean indubitably existed, but at 
the same time they had .still much in com- 
mon compared to that which was outside 
the orbis romanus. But the Islamic expan- 
sion caused no rupture; certainly nobody 
can deny that from the long view it limited 
European civilization to Europe proper, but 
the islamization was a slow process. The 
Arabs were a small minority in proportion 
to the conquered peoples; in the Eastern 
countries they assumed the Hellenistic- 
Oriental civilization, and in the Western 
they entered into the Latin heritage, 
though this proved of much smaller 

Nor did Islam break the evolution of 
Western Europe, and a continuity between 
the Merovingian and the Carolingian age 
can hardly be refuted. But evidently the 
Carolingian age witnessed the outbreak of 
the east-western antagonism, expressed by 
the detachment of the papacy and the re- 
construction of the western empire. But if 
the rupture did come in the 8th century, 

the reason was probably that the weaken- 
ing of the Greek empire and the reorgani- 
zation of the Prankish kingdom had created 
the necessary actual basis for the new papal 
policy. Furthermore, the Carolingian con- 
quests included new regions that had had 
no part in the classical civilization, and, 
what is more important, the Irish-Anglo 
Saxon civilization, based on a distinctly 
Latin tradition, came to dominate the cul- 
tural life; this counteracted the Oriental 
influence and deepened the contrast to the 
Eastern countries, which in the same period 
were acquiring a still more markedly Orien- 
tal character. The Oriental influence in 
Italy was certainly strengthened by the 
immigrations, but the immigrants sided 
with the papal policy, and that is even truer 
of the iconodulic refugees in the 8th 

Thus the most essential influence of the 
Islamic expansion on the cultural develop- 
ment of the Occident is probably to be 
found in the fact that the weakening of 
Byzantium forced this empire to withdraw 
and leave the Occident peace to pursue its 
own independent development. 


Research until now had definitely tended 
towards refuting Pirenne's theses, but the 
last word has certainly not yet been said. 
It is, of course, the lack of sources that has 
made possible so many different views, and 
though it is preferable to let the sources 
speak for themselves, they cannot do so. 
One may quote authorities in support of 
any theory, and the final judgment of the 
economic development must consequently 
depend on a general estimation of the effect 
which the joint historical course of events 
may be assumed to have had on the eco- 
nomic conditions. Regarding the conse- 
quences of the Islamic expansion specially, 
the judgment of this problem must, in the 
end, rest on more or less vague speculations 
on what would have happened if the Cali- 
phate had not come into existence. 

But of course primary examinations of a 
great many subjects are still needed. Writ- 



ten and archaeological sources may no 
doubt yield much more information of the 
kind collected by Sabbe, 1 and the numis- 
matical material is far from exhausted, nor 
is the true role of money satisfactorily ex- 
plained. The cultural development has 
been the step-child of the discussion, and 
this field offers vast opportunities for re- 
search. It might prove important to ascer- 
tain if new trends of art, literature, or phi- 
losophy spread quickly from one region to 
another, and it would be valuable to ex- 
amine \vhat knowledge of Oriental affairs 
is displayed by European authorities, as 
Baynes and lorga have done in some cases. 
This must then be supplemented by similar 
examinations of Oriental sources, for it 
must not be forgotten that an economic and 
cultural intercourse has always two sides; 
the Oriental side has definitely been grossly 
neglected, and many historians entirely 
lack knowledge of Oriental conditions. For 
this we must turn to specialists in Islamic 
and Byzantine history, and very likely they 
will get the last word. 

But more than anything else a revision 
of the very formulation of the problems is 
needed. Much vagueness and many possi- 
bilities of conflict have been caused by the 
lack of clear definitions. This is true of the 
cultural history, since nobody takes the 
trouble to define precisely what they mean 
by a cultural unity, and within economic 
history many speak in vague general terms 
about natural and money economy without 
defining these conceptions. The greatest de- 
ficiency is, however, the lack of definitions 
of the Orient and the Occident. Most par- 
ticipants in the discussion seem to localize 
the Orient in the Levant proper and the 
Southern Balkans, while the Occident is 
identified with Italy and the Prankish king- 
dom. But though this may seem obvious, it 
is in fact a fatal bias, evoked by modern 
geographical notions. For the later Roman 
empire it should be natural to define the 

1 E. Sabbe, a Belgian historian, has brought to 
light considerable evidence of trade between East 
and West in the Carolingian period. [Editor's 

Orient and the Occident as respectively the 
Eastern and the Western empire. But 
through Justinian's conquests the Orient 
took large parts of the Occident into pos- 
session, not only politically, but to a certain 
degree also culturally and economically. 
This means that the cultural, particularly 
the religious contrast before the 7th cen- 
tury, was not a contrast between the Orient 
and the Occident, but between two parties 
within the Orient. Greece had a consider- 
able orthodox party, and the pope still re- 
garded the Byzantine emperor as the true 
secular head of the world and dated all 
letters by the imperial years of reign until 
787. Furthermore, most of the Balkans was 
subject to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of 

The Islamic expansion incorporated 
Africa and Spain into the Moslem Orient, 
and the Balkans and Sicily came under the 
Constantinopolitan patriarch during the 
iconoclastic conflict, while at the same time 
Byzantine Italy was truly hellenized. This 
development confined the Occident to the 
domain of the Roman church, and West- 
ern unity was further emphasized by Char- 
lemagne's conquests, which brought all 
Roman Catholic countries, except the Brit- 
ish Isles, together under one ruler. Thus in 
the age of Charlemagne the Occident stood 
out as a definite conception in contrast to 
the Orient, but at the same time it enjoyed 
an intimate contact with both the Moslem 
and the Byzantine Orient via respectively 
Spain and Italy, for wheresoever Allah was 
worshipped, or the Greek emperor obeyed, 
the Orient was present. Such a conception 
in the highest degree simplifies the prob- 
lem of the economic and cultural relations 
between the Orient and the Occident, since 
the western parts of the Islamic and Byzan- 
tine Orient were never without connexion 
with the eastern parts. ^ v 

Nothing is better proof of Pirenne's bril- s 
liant eloquence than the fact that he has 
been able to impose his own formulation 
of the problems upon even his opponents, 
but by now the time should be ripe for jan 
unbiased revision. 


An attempt to draft a list of supplemen- 
tary references on the "Pirenne Thesis" en- 
counters two fundamental difficulties. In 
the first place, so wide are the ramifications 
and so broad are the implications of Pi- 
renne's ideas that a bibliography might well 
embrace the entire history of the Middle 
Ages. In the second place, the issues are of 
primary concern to European historians, 
more especially French, German, and 
Belgian, and most of their contributions 
(whether in book form or in articles) are 
not available in English translation and 
indeed may be consulted only in a few 
American libraries. A list of references for 
undergraduate use in the United States 
must, therefore, be necessarily arbitrary. 

The purpose of the suggestions which 
follow is two-fold: (1) to suggest some 
introductory material which may be help- 
ful to the beginning student and to provide 
him with a larger context for the analysis 
of this problem; (2) to indicate to the stu- 
dent where he will find further elaboration 
of the issues raised by Pirenne and more 
extensive criticism than is found in the 
selections provided in this booklet. 

For the student, just beginning to find 
his way in the period, the problem can best 
be studied initially in conjunction with 
some standard survey of the early Middle 
Ages. If this survey is conventional in 
nature and moderate in interpretation, so 
much the better, for then the impact of 
Pirenne will be all the greater. There are 
many such surveys available in excellent 
texts. A very serviceable introduction in 
even briefer compass is found in Joseph R. 
Strayer, Western Europe in the Middle 
Ages: A Short History (New York, 1955). 

The larger the context the student can 
provide for himself, the better. It would 
be well for him to become thoroughly 
acquainted with the political story of the 
barbarian invasions and the formation of 
Germanic kingdoms in the West. Analyses 

which are fairly comprehensive and yet 
within manageable compass are found in 
J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Barbarian 
West, 400-1000 (London, 1952) and in 
H. St. L. B. Moss, The Birth of the Middle 
Ages, 395-814 (London, 1935). An ambi- 
tious student will be rewarded by consult- 
ing the mass of information in the early 
volumes of the Cambridge Medieval His- 
tory. Ferdinand Lot, much influenced by 
Pirenne, was the author of a brilliant treat- 
ment of the transition from the Roman Em- 
pire to Germanic kingdoms in his The End 
of the Ancient World and the Beginnings 
of the Middle Ages (New York, 1931). 

The difficult problem of the relation of 
the Merovingian period to the Carolingian 
era may be pursued in several distinguished 
works. One of the most important of recent 
years is that of E. Salin, La Civilisation 
merovingienne d'apres les sepultures, les 
textes et le laboratoire (2 vols., Paris, 1950- 
1953). Salin, a French mining engineer 
turned archaeologist, has framed novel 
and significant theories concerning the 
Merovingian period. His first volume is a 
general treatment of the German invasions; 
the second is an analysis of grave findings. 
Easily the best work on the Carolingian era 
is Louis Halphen, Charlemagne et I' empire 
carolingien (Paris, 1947). The leading 
Austrian medievalist of the twentieth cen- 
tury has been the late Alfons Dopsch. He 
held to the notion of unbroken cultural and 
economic continuity from the later Roman 
Empire through the Merovingian period 
into the Carolingian era. His views have 
been accepted only in part and should be 
studied with caution; they may be followed 
in his The Economic and Social Founda- 
tions of European Civilization (condensed 
and translated from the second German 
edition; New York, 1937). Arthur Jean 
Kleinclausz, Charlemagne (Paris, 1934) is 
the best book in any language on its sub- 
ject, but a very readable and dependable 



Suggestions for Additional Reading 

biography is available in Richard Winston's 
Charlemagne, from the Hammer to the 
Cross (New York, 1955). 

Byzantine studies are now enjoying a 
renaissance and provide another vantage 
point from which to assess the ideas of 
Pirenne. A good introduction is offered 
in J. M. Hussey, The Byzantine World 
(London, 1957). A standard work is A. A. 
Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire 
(2 vols., Madison, Wis., 1928-1929). 
Vasiliev was a Russian scholar who came 
to the United States in 1925 and was long 
associated with the University of Wiscon- 
sin and with the Dumbarton Oaks Research 
Library. His book was also published in 
Russian, French, Spanish, and Turkish. 
Less detailed but somewhat more abreast 
of latest scholarship is a work by the 
Serbian scholar, Georg Ostrogorsky' His 
History of the Byzantine State (Oxford, 
1956) is a translation from the second 
German edition of 1954, but incorporates 
results of research even in the brief interim. 
An interesting presentation of the issues of 
Byzantine history is afforded by compara- 
tive study of the views of a French histo- 
rian, Ch. Diehl (1859-1944) and those 
of a British scholar, Norman H. Baynes 
(1877- ). A student seeking more gen- 
eral treatment, particularly of cultural his- 
tory, will do well to consult the essays by 
specialists in various fields conveniently col- 
lected by Norman H. Baynes and H. St. L. 
B. Moss, in Byzantium: An Introduction to 
East Roman Civilization (Oxford, 1948). 
It is a valuable and fascinating book. A 
useful treatment of the same material, but 
more popular in tone, is provided in Steven 
Runciman, Byzantine Civilisation (Lon- 
don, 1933). 

For Islam, the important contribution of 
Philip K. Hitti, an Arab scholar at Prince- 
ton since 1926, will provide ample mate- 
rial. His The Arabs: A Short History 
(Princeton, 1943) is a highly successful 
compression of a much larger work, History 
of the Arabs (5th edition, London, 1953). 
Gustav E. von Grunebaum in Medieval 
Islam: A Study in Cultural Orientation 

(2nd ed., Chicago, 1953) has much to say 
concerning Moslem ideas and institutions 
which is relevant to the controversy over 

The most elusive problems raised by 
Pirenne are those which concern economic 
development trade, industry, towns, and 
cities. Until very recently, in these matters 
the state of our knowledge made the early 
medieval period indeed a "dark age." Con- 
temporary sources on economic history are 
far scantier than for political or for church 
history. Only a few documents before 800 
are found in a recent collection of materials 
put together by Robert S. Lopez and Irving 
W. Raymond (.Medieval Trade in the 
Mediterranean World, New York, 1955). 
But medieval economic history is now a 
very active field; the works already cited by 
Lot, Dopsch, Salin, and Halphen incorpo- 
rate results of recent research. The most 
useful summaries in English, as well as 
extensive bibliographies, will be found in 
vol. I-II of the Cambridge Economic His- 
tory (Cambridge, 1941, 1952). But the 
best book on economic development in the 
early Middle Ages is now Robert Latouche, 
Les Origines de I'economie occidentale 
(Paris, 1956). 

The serious student interested in trends 
of current scholarship will soon become 
aware of the rich resources in scholarly 
periodicals concerned with the early Middle 
Ages; the journal most readily available to 
undergraduates will be Speculum: A Jour- 
nal of Medieval Studies, published by the 
Medieval Academy of America. At the 
same time he will do well to become ac- 
quainted with the contributions of histo- 
rians of other days. In this connection, 
Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline 
and Fall of the Roman Empire (Bury edi- 
tion, 7 v., London, 1896-1900) is of course 
a work apart and should still be read both 
for its information and its interpretation. 

For Henri Pirenne himself, the essentials 
for the examination of his ideas and the 
controversy they generated are found in the 
selections of this book. Further amplifica- 
tion and illustration can, however, readily 

Suggestions for Additional Reading 


be found. Professor Gray C. Boyce provides 
some interesting biographical details, in- 
cluding Pirenne's poignant experience dur- 
ing the first World War, in his article, "The 
Legacy of Henri Pirenne," Byzantion, vol. 
XV (1940-1941), pp. 449-464. A full 
reading of the Mohammed and Charle- 
magne will provide fairly complete knowl- 
edge of Pirenne's contribution. A compre- 
hensive bibliography of Pirenne's writings 
is found in Henri Laurent, "Les Travaux 
de M. Henri Pirenne sur la fin du monde 
antique et les debuts du moyen age," 
Byzantion, VII (1932), 495-509, and in 
Anne Riising, "The Fate of Henri Pirenne's 

Theses," Classica et Mediaevalia, XIII 
(1952). The more important items, with 
citations to reviews of Pirenne's books, are 
found in Daniel C. Dennett, Jr., "Pirenne 
and Muhammad," S'peculwn, XXIII 
(April, 1948). A careful defense of Pi- 
renne is provided in Pierre Lambrechts, 
"Les Theses de Henri Pirenne sur la fin 
du monde antique et les debuts du moyen 
age," Byzantion, XIV (1939), 513-536.' A 
recent analysis is that by Anne Riising (in 
the article cited above); she cites and sum- 
marizes the important commentary which 
has accumulated over the years. 


!Z 2 
00 <